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.

Bard Fest: CTC makes ‘Much Ado’ really something

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.bardfestindy.com.

By John Lyle Belden

For those who tire of Shakespeare plays being set in all manner of different times and places, good news – Carmel Theatre Company’s production of the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” retains its original setting of 1600s Italy. But for those who don’t want to see every random character and hear every scripted word (raises hand) this play has undergone some gentle editing, adapted by director Laura Kuhn, sparing us from the sprawl of characters the Bard typically populates his comedies with.

With easy to follow cast and plot, and sharply delivered lines, we get an entertaining romp that often has the feel of a TV sitcom. This establishes itself from the beginning, as returning soldier Benedick (Steve Kruze), whose wit is as sharp as his sword, starts verbal sparring with Beatrice (Christine Kruze), a slightly less cynical version of Kate from “Taming of the Shrew.” They each have such a disdain for love and marriage that – well, you can guess what’s in store for them.

But the big love story is Count Claudio (Jeffrey Bird) who longs to woo the maiden Hero (Elysia Rohn). His BFF Don Pedro (Matt Anderson) arranges the match, but Pedro’s sister Donna Joanna (Amanda Bell) doesn’t like it when people are happy – especially her brother – and sets out to ruin the impending marriage. She nearly succeeds, but this is a comedy.

The actors so far listed deliver brilliantly, as well as Tony Johnson as Hero’s father Leonato, David Whicker as his brother Antonio, Jarrett Yates as Don Pedro’s servant Balthasar, Leah Hodson as Hero’s attendant Margaret, Dustin Miller and Manny Casillas as Donna Joanna’s minions Borachio and Conrade, Daniel Young as Friar Francis, and Jim Mellowitz as the Sexton. As for Jim Maratea as Constable Dogberry, as his partner Verges (Guy Grubbs) would mark it at the appropriate time that he is “an ass,” his gaily executed performance takes his comic foil role to its limits.

Even for one like me who has seen a few “Much Ados” this earnest production delivers, with much laughter and appropriate melodrama. The scenes where one character listens in on others’ conversations are gems of physical comedy. The costumes looked perfect, but the set a bit too solidly built – hopefully they can find a way to smooth the scene changes by the second weekend.

As the play’s title implies, what doesn’t seem that big a deal becomes literally life-and-death situations. We laugh at those old-time attitudes, but one honest look at the Internet shows we’re never immune from the drama.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5-7 at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

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.

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.

Review: The price of defying godlike power

By John Lyle Belden

In the hands of Eclectic Pond Theatre Company, one of Western civilization’s oldest surviving plays truly becomes timeless.

“Prometheus Bound,” attributed to ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, was based on the myth of the Titan who defied the ruling god Zeus and brought fire – and with it, civilizing knowledge – to humankind. For his “crime,” Prometheus was chained to a rock and subjected to daily torture. In the play, he is visited by characters who ask him why he committed the act and to beg for forgiveness.

In the ETC production, playing Friday through Sunday at Wheeler Arts Community Center, Prometheus is the online name of a hacker (played by Bradford Reilly) who worked for the NSA and its director – nicknamed “Zeus,” of course – to develop the all-knowing Firenet. Acting similarly to real-world fugitive Edward Snowden, the online titan makes the secret program public – giving “Fire” to mankind.

He is shackled by Hephaestus (Tristan Ross) and Kratos (Taylor Cox), now represented by the prison warden and guard. The Chorus who questions Prometheus and listens to his soliloquies is a TV reporter played by Ann Marie Elliott. Oceanus, the fellow Titan who begs the prisoner to reconcile with Zeus, is in 2016 his attorney, played by Ross. Cox also takes a second role as Hermes, Zeus’ messenger.

Prometheus also encounters Io (Elysia Rohm), a woman whom Zeus lusted after. In mythology, she was turned into a cow, today she is only called one as an epithet, and is disappeared to a neighboring prison cell.

The classic translation of the Greek drama is kept intact, so to be understandable we must take myth as metaphor, but Reilly manages to communicate well his disdain for a tyrant of any era. Ross, Cox and Elliott, all experienced with Shakespearean dialogue in a modern setting, have no trouble with this material either. I first thought that Elliott in her role smiled a bit much for such serious subject matter, but it works as a portrayal of the cynical nature of today’s media – addressing world-changing news with an incredulous grin. Rohm is effective in making us feel Io’s plight – whether as the maiden pursued by an amorous god, or an inconvenient affair that a man in power can’t let walk free.

To better understand the story and put it in a relatable context, there are several well-produced broadcast news breaks shown on a screen to the side of the simple set of Prometheus’s cell. These were helpful and fit right in with the whole concept of the play.

Director Carey Shea and company have produced an excellent fresh take on an old story, a commentary on the “gods” we may all find ourselves answering to. Find Wheeler Arts at 1035 Sanders St., Indianapolis, near Fountain Square. For information and tickets, see eclecticpond.org.

(Also posted at The Word)

Review: ‘Spoonful’ has unexpected depth

Elloit (Mauricio Miranda, front, left) and his cousin Yazmin (Elysia Rohn, right) deal with the death of the woman who raised them, among other issues, while the ghost of an Iraqi Elliot killed (Sunny Arwal) haunts in the background in a scene from "Water By The Spoonful," presented by Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project at the IndyFringe Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. -- Wisdom Tooth photo
Elloit (Mauricio Miranda, front, left) and his cousin Yazmin (Elysia Rohn, right) deal with the death of the woman who raised them, among other issues, while the ghost of an Iraqi Elliot killed (Sunny Arwal) haunts in the background in a scene from “Water By The Spoonful,” presented by Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project at the IndyFringe Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. — Wisdom Tooth photo

By John Lyle Belden

Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project likes to present thought-provoking plays, and “Water by the Spoonful” definitely digs into your noggin.

Director Ronn Johnston confessed he “fell in love” with this drama by Quiara Algria Hudes. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, it’s about addiction,’” he said, “but then I found it was so much more than that.”

Marine veteran Elliot (Mauricio Miranda) and his cousin Yazmin (Elysia Rohn) find themselves dealing with the death of her mother and his aunt, the woman who raised them. It doesn’t help that he is also shadowed by the ghost of a man he killed in Iraq (Sunny Arwal).

Meanwhile, Elliot’s biological mother, Odessa (Dena Toler), has become “Haikumom,” the admin for an online forum for fellow recovering crack cocaine addicts. She keeps the peace as the harmony between her, Chutes&Ladders (Butch Copeland) and Orangutan (Tracy Herring) is disturbed by Fountainhead (Scott Russell), a man clearly not being honest with anyone, especially himself.

What is presented as a simple family and relationship drama gains a number of layers as our characters deal with their demons, confront truths and test how far they would truly go for each other – to the hospital? To Japan? And are some acts truly beyond forgiveness, beyond redemption? These questions, and how the characters struggle to answer them, echo beyond the play’s curtain call.

The title refers to events in Elliot’s childhood that led to his being raised by his aunt, and a lifesaving act that takes place one small spoonful at a time – a process those in recovery understand all too well.

This cast is strong and believable. Toler is beautifully tragic; Miranda keeps Elliot’s emotions at a low boil throughout, helping us feel his pain; Russell makes us dislike, then admire his conflicted character; Copeland and Herring get us rooting for their unlikely yet inevitable friendship; Atwal is the glue of the plot; and Rohn perfectly embodies the person who is involved in the story, yet feels like a bystander because she is not an addict herself.

“Water by the Spoonful” has two more weekends at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get tickets at indyfringe.org or wisdomtooththeatreproject.org.