Bard Fest: ‘Merchant’ an entertaining comedy with troubling themes

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

By Wendy Carson

One of the things I love about Bardfest is that at least one production is more obscure or rarely produced. This year’s offering is “The Merchant of Venice,” presented by First Folio Productions, adapted and directed by Doug Powers.

The play is actually a romantic comedy, but has tragic overtones. It sports an easy-to-follow plotline and is immensely entertaining. Therefore, you may wonder why is it not done more often. I can only guess it is due to the overwhelming Antisemitism rife in the story’s main plot. So let’s address that matter: I believe it exists, not just to justify the character’s level of vengeance, but also because in the overwhelmingly Catholic nation, the Jews were a minority. This opens a dialogue regarding the mistrust, denigration and oppression of minorities. Especially in our turbulent modern times.

That all being said, let’s now get to the actual play.

The crux of the story is that Bassanio desires to woo the lovely Portia, a wealthy heiress. Since he has foolishly squandered his own fortunes, he turns to his beloved friend, Antonio, to loan him the money needed (which will be easily repaid by his new wife’s money). With Antonio’s funds tied up in his own business ventures, they must seek the aid of a local Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Having been slandered and ill-treated my Antonio for years, Shylock is loath to help him, but agrees to the loan provided he is delivered a pound of flesh upon default. Since the gentlemen know that there is no way this would occur, they agree.

Portia’s father passed away, but had devised a method to aid her in the choosing of the correct bridegroom. Three coffers are given, one each of gold, silver and lead, each with a warning regarding the contents – only one granting permission to marry. After other suitors fail, Bassanio chooses correctly.

Meanwhile, Antonio’s ships have all wrecked leaving him unable to repay the debt. Add to this that one of his friends, Lorenzo, not only eloped with Shylock’s only daughter, Jessica, but also converted her to Christianity, and the overwhelmed Shylock resolves to exact his revenge by literally collecting the promised pound of flesh. Bassanio offers to save his friend by paying twice the amount of the debt, but for Shylock, this is not about money, it is about his honor.

A trial commences and Shylock is granted his pound of flesh. However, the visiting lawyer – Portia in disguise – announces that upon taking his due, he not only must take the exact amount (no more, no less) but must also not spill a drop of blood in its collection. What will Shylock do?

Emily Bohn as Portia and Amanda Boldt as her maid, Nerissa, aptly bring forward the cunning that women are scarcely afforded in many of the Bard’s productions. Ryan Ruckman (Antonio) and Zach Taylor (Bassanio) portray not only the determination of each character but their intensely loving friendship. Ryan Reddick beautifully embodies the emotional sorrow and vengeance that drive Shylock to his end.

While John Mortell plays three characters throughout the show, his endearingly comic turn as Portia’s somewhat dimwitted servant, Balthasar, is truly a delight to behold. Bringing much-needed levity to a show that can be fraught with darkness.

The cast also includes Jim Banta, Aaron Cleveland, Ben Mathis, Pat Mullen, Rachel Snyder, Dwuan Watson Jr. and Lexy Weixel – all excellent.

Powers places the play in an Italy resembling the 1930s, as his Director’s Note explains, a time when rampant antisemitism has swept Europe, but its tragic endgame was yet to be revealed.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5-7, at the Indyfringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

Rumor has it: Civic makes ‘Sense’

By John Lyle Belden

If you wonder at the possible appeal of a play based on a Jane Austen novel, consider the number of people, from all backgrounds, now hooked on Downton Abbey. And it’s not just the accents, the fine clothes, or even the tea – but a good well-told story that sustains such period tales’ popularity. And we all feel for those living mired in an environment of strict rules of conduct and etiquette.

“Sense and Sensibility,” a light drama based on Austen’s 1811 novel, at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Feb. 17, also emphasizes a public scourge with which we can all identify: The constant gossip and rumors, frequently spoken to set up and frame the scenes, sound all too familiar in our Twitter and TMZ world.

Weathering this social storm are the Dashwood family. The widow Mrs. Dashwood (Carrie Neal) and her daughters – sensible Elinor (Emily Bohn), romantic Marianne (Morgan Morton) and young Margaret (Elisabeth Giffen Speckman) – are forced to live on their own in a humble cottage, as their former estate had gone to a son from Mr. Dashwood’s prior marriage (women weren’t allowed to inherit). Despite being dropped to the lower rungs of the almost caste-like society of 1790s England, Elinor and especially Marianne receive the attentions of very promising single men, including shy Robert Ferrars (Joshua Ramsey), rakish John Willoughby (Justin Klein) and steady Colonel Brandon (Bradford Reilly).

In addition to these men, the cast also includes scene-stealer extraordinaire Matt Anderson as the Dashwoods’ cousin Sir John, whose generosity helps the women stay on their feet. In exchange, he – and nearly anyone else around – only want the latest juicy news from around the countryside.

This recent adaptation of Austen’s story by Kate Hamill, directed for the Civic by John Michael Goodson, is marked by its reliance on swirling rumor to drive the plot, as well as its minimalist staging. Little more than chairs and a few props are used, putting the focus squarely on the actors. Aside from Bohn and Morton, whose characters are the focal point of the book and play, all other cast members play multiple roles, and even the occasional dog or horse. This adds to the show’s sense of humor – enough to entertain, but never overreaching into farce. For instance, at one point Abby Gilster frequently enters and exits a scene as two different characters, making it an inevitable laugh line when one has to remark about the other.

High marks to all the cast, with clear characterizations despite a fairly high-energy pace (no dreary corset drama, this!). And as a woman’s novel adapted by another woman, it’s easy to see the story as a celebration of women working to live as much as possible on their own terms.

A review of the original New York production of this version calls it “Jane Austen for those who don’t usually like Jane Austen,” but that sells the source material short. This “Sense and Sensibility” looks through the old story through a more contemporary lens, while leaving Miss Austen’s intentions intact. It only makes “sense” that you should check this out.

Performances are on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or visit www.civictheatre.org, or thecenterpresents.org for tickets.

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.

What’s so funny about peace, love and misunderstanding?

By John Lyle Belden

Anton Chekhov called his 1895 play, “The Seagull,” a “comedy in four acts” – which makes one wonder about Russians’ sense of humor.

But the play, adapted and directed by Casey Ross and presented by her Catalyst Repertory company – shaved down to two acts (one-two / intermission / three-four) – does have some light moments. Good drama always has its share of humor, and its “comic” elements are further reflected in an almost Shakespearean level of unrequited love among the characters.

The setting is a peaceful rural Russian estate, with its nice house belonging to aging civil servant Pyotr Sorin (Dennis Forkel) and a lake, near which his nephew Konstantin Treplev (Taylor Cox) presents a play he has written, starring his girlfriend, local girl Nina (Ann Marie Elliott).

Treplev sees himself in the shadow of his famous actress mother, Irina Arkadina (Nan Macy), and her popular friends. “I have no discernible talent,” he laments. But to prove himself, he is determined to write a “new form” of theatre, simultaneously rebelling against and surpassing the great Arkadina. Before an audience of locals, family and his mother’s guest, famous writer Boris Trigorn (Thomas Cardwell), the premiere flounders thanks to Treplev’s abstract symbolism – inspiring heckling from Arkadina – and Nina’s amateurish acting.

Later Trigorn flatters Nina, encouraging her dream of becoming a professional actor, and winning her away from Treplev. Meanwhile, beautiful-in-black Masha (Emily Bohn) is in love with Treplev, while poor schoolmaster Medivenko (Bradford Reilly) is in love with Masha. Paulina (Kyrsten Lyster) is in an affair with Yevgeny Dorn (Craig Kemp), a kindly doctor with a song in his heart, but she is married to very unromantic estate caretaker Ilya Shamrayeff (Anthony Nathan).

While good acting is essential to any play, the presentation of these characters is all Chekhov has given us – no wild action or deep mystery. Fortunately, Ross knows some very talented actors.

Cox is great at playing the tortured soul, and he has plenty to work with here. A hundred-twenty years later, even in Russia, Treplev would have medication and perhaps a therapist to aid his issues. In this world, he must wade through on his own with little help from his mother – she brushes off his suicide attempt as a silly phase, afraid to leave the limelight world that is the only place she feels happy. Macy turns on the charm, while showing the depth of her character’s shallowness.

Elliott is brilliant as usual, mastering not only all the subtle facets of Nina, but managing to act “bad” in an entertaining way. Cardwell reveals a man wrestling with the life his genius has given him – “I have no rest from myself” – but still subject to base desires. In one of the play’s most famous scenes, he presents the idea of “destroying” the young woman, saying it directly to her. But blinded by her pursuit of fame, Nina allows it to happen, not realizing until it is too late what she has become.

And a shout out to Nathan for nearly stealing scenes with Shamreyeff’s socially clumsy moments, and for making the death of the title bird more funny than it should be.

So: When you get what you’ve been chasing after – or what you settled for – is it worth it? That would be the thematic question at work here, and while the answers aren’t definitive, they do feel honest to the harsh world we live in, wherever we are in time or on the globe. And when the circumstances permit, we can get in a laugh or two.

“The Seagull” has performances Sept. 15-17 and 22-24 at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. For info and tickets, visit Facebook.com/CatalystRepertory or the company’s website.

TOTS: Bitter arguments in a ‘City of Conversation’

By John Lyle Belden

In today’s political climate, many wonder how and when America became so polarized, with right and left (Republican and Democrat) in separate camps, each fiercely partisan and bitter. In the days of a more traditional Washington “establishment,” was it truly both sides talking to each other, or merely D.C. elites talking among themselves?

These questions and their accompanying history are played out with members of one Washington family in the drama, “The City of Conversation,” playing through April 29 at Theatre on the Square, 627 Mass. Ave. in downtown Indy.

In the late 1970s, a country in recovery from Vietnam and Watergate is being led by a Georgia peanut farmer with few friends in the D.C. Establishment. And Colin Ferris (Carey Shea) returns home from college in London, bringing his fiance, Anna Fitzgerald (Emily Bohn), to the Georgetown home of his mother, Hester (Nan Macy), and Aunt Jean (Forba Shepherd). A longtime liberal firebrand, Hester shares her bed with Virginia Senator Chandler Harris (Doug Powers), and the evening includes a dinner with fellow Sen. George Mallonee (David Mosedale) and his wife Carolyn (Anna Lee).

The ulterior motive of the gathering (and there always is in Georgetown dinners) is for the senators to discuss aiding Teddy Kennedy in his efforts to take the 1980 Democratic nomination and restore the glory days of liberalism to Washington.

But Anna, an economics student from Minnesota, gives her outsider view that the growing support for California Republican Ronald Reagan should be taken seriously – to Hester’s horror, Colin agrees.

A decade later, Colin and Anna are working for GOP officials, but their son, Ethan (Max Gallagher), is getting a different political point of view from his grandmother and great-aunt. As the hard-fought battle over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court wages downtown, in Georgetown, Anna demands that Hester no longer have contact with Ethan, forcing Colin to choose sides.

The last scene takes place on the day of Pres. Obama’s inauguration, when adult Ethan (Shea) brings his partner, Donald (Bradley Lowe), to meet his grandmother.

This play is a conversation of its own, a conversation with us with our 2017 point of view, and a conversation starter to be sure. Macy is glorious, like a more-grounded Auntie Mame – well-versed in what she understands, but blind to what she doesn’t. Shea ably plays the complexity of being the kind of young person whose means of rebellion against his parents is to become more conservative, even while refusing to cut his long hair. Bohn’s Anna is very much like Hester in that she has to be always certain and in control of her world, which sets up their inevitable clash. Powers’ smooth voice and manner makes him well suited to playing the kind of politician used to compromise in a world where that is starting to become difficult.

The intimate feeling of the family living room setting is completed by inhabiting the intimate TOTS Second Stage. This also means seating is limited, so contact 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.