Discover the beauty of ‘Violet’

By John Lyle Belden

The musical “Violet” touches on many themes: blind faith, being blinded by faith, the importance of our appearance to ourselves and others, and the necessity to forgive — both others and ourselves. Eclipse productions, a program of Summer Stock Stage, brings all these aspects beautifully into focus in its production of “Violet” at the Phoenix Theatre, through June 15.

In 1964, Violet, a young woman from rural Spruce Pine, North Carolina., travels by bus to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to find a television preacher who conducts televised faith healings. She hopes to finally be rid of a disfiguring facial scar she got from an accident with a wayward ax blade. On the way, she rides with two soldiers on their way to Ft. Smith, Arkansas (nearby Fort Chaffee, to be accurate, but this isn’t mentioned), the last stop before Tulsa.

Along the way, Violet (Elizabeth Hutson) gets to know Flick (Mark Maxwell), a black Sargeant, and Monty (John Collins), a white Corporal, as they get a measure of her and appreciate the woman behind the face. She also meets characters such as a well-meaning old lady (Amanda Boldt) and the driver (Carlos Medina Maldonado), as well Almeta (Chase Infiniti), who runs a boarding house in Memphis, and isn’t comfortable with white folks in her rooms. During this journey, we can see in her memory a younger Violet (Leah Broderick) and her father (Eric J. Olson), who as a widower tries to do as well as he can for his daughter, while enduring a river of deep regrets.

The cast also includes Terrence Lambert, Lily Wessel, and Gabriel Herzog in various roles. At the Tulsa church studio, we meet Maldonado as the preacher with a choir led by Infiniti as featured singer, Lula.

Most of the ensemble are Summer Stock Stage alumni, young adults given an opportunity to show the skills they attained through years in the youth program as well as high school and university; thus we have fresh faces performing like old pros alongside veteran actors Olson and Maldonado.

Hutson is exceptional, her star shining through the plain hair and clothes, helping us to see the scar burned into her psyche even though (as is commonly done in this production) it is not visible on her face. Maxwell and Collins flesh out their characters solidly, and Infiniti gets to show off her powerful voice.

The simple set suggesting an old country church, by designer Geoffrey Ehrendreich, is adorned with mirrors hanging high above it, the shadow of the center one looming in the background as a metaphorical tombstone. Music direction and costumes are by Jeanne Bowling, with a backstage band conducted by pianist Nathan Perry. Eclipse Artistic Director and show producer Emily Ristine Holloway directs.

This beautiful work is playing on the Russell main stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at www.SummerStockStage.com or PhoenixTheatre.org.

Help pick the killer du jour at ATI’s ‘Drood’

By John Lyle Belden

Regardless of if you’d consider a murder mystery fun, you are bound to get a kick out of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through May 13 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The biggest mystery of the story is how it ends. Charles Dickens died while writing it, with no definitive clues left as to his intended perpetrator, or even if Drood actually dies.

In this Broadway musical, written by Rupert Holmes, we witness a Victorian-era comic troupe bring the story to life, while letting the audience vote to settle questions such as the identity of the killer. True to English music hall “panto” tradition, the lead male is played by a woman, we are encouraged to “boo-hiss” the villain, and silliness could break out at any time.

ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins takes on the title character, a bright, likable gentleman engaged to the lovely Rosa Bud (Harli Cooper) since they were children. Drood’s uncle, church choirmaster John Jasper (Eric Olson) wants to possess Rosa – or at least one of his personalities does. Meanwhile, the Rev. Crisparkle (Darrin Murrell), has arrived from Ceylon with the Landless twins: Neville (Logan Moore), a hot-tempered young man who also feels desire for Rosa, and Helena (Jaddy Ciucci), who worries about Neville’s temper while otherwise acting exotic and downright mysterious. We also meet Durdles (John Vessels), the good-natured gravedigger; opium-den matron Princess Puffer (Judy Fitzgerald), whose customers include Jasper; Mr. Bazzard (Paul Collier Hansen), played by a man always up for minor parts; and Flo (Karaline Feller), who is, well, pretty. We are guided through this cast and story with the help of The Chairman (T.J. Lancaster), who also has to pitch in for an absent actor.

In scenes laced with cheeky humor and song, clues are dropped and a minor bit of tension raised as the story leads up to Drood’s disappearance. Then more revelations are made as an obviously-disguised person appears as private eye Dick Datchery. But soon, the lights go up as the Chairman notes that this is as far as the Dickens text goes. Who’s who and what’s what? Time to vote! (Note this election is not rigged; any of several suspects could be selected and can be different from one performance to the next.)

Performances are great all around. Lancaster is an excellent guide, while Collins holds the center well. Meanwhile, Olson plays a cruel maniac so well, it just seems too obvious to consider him the killer! The show has a great music hall feel, with the musicians at the back of center stage, and appropriate look thanks to designer P. Bernard Killian, complemented by costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck.

I’ve used “fun” a lot to describe recent plays, but it certainly applies here in a style that feels more intimate and engaging for the audience in the Studio Theater’s black-box style space. As one only has to applaud their choice or turn in a ballot from a pre-printed list, it’s not too involved an “audience participation” situation, yet you do feel like part of the festivities, making for a fully satisfying theatrical experience – even if your candidate for murderer doesn’t get chosen.

Get information and tickets at www.atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Phoenix premiere: Search for understanding takes musical’s author ‘Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Nothing is what it appears in the Fun Home. Even the name disguises its purpose, being short for Funeral Home – but that doesn’t stop the kids who live there from writing it an upbeat commercial jingle. The house is immaculate, orderly and almost museum-like – an elaborate facade for the psychological chaos in its residents.

One of those kids, Alison Bechdel, grows up to be a popular queer cartoonist. As she reflects back on her unusual childhood and coming of age, she wants to write and draw it all as it really happened – not as she wants to remember it. That struggle plays out in the Tony-winning musical, “Fun Home” (based on her autobiographical graphic novel), making its Indiana premiere at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

We meet today’s Alison (Cynthia Collins), young Alison (Amelia Wray) and, later, Alison in college (Ivy Moody).

The girl longs for attention from, and the teen connection to, her father, Bruce (Eric J. Olson), while helping mother, Helen (Emily Ristine), and brothers, John and Christian (Jacob McVay and Aiden Shurr), keep their home orderly. She finds herself having feelings she’s not sure others understand – she hates wearing dresses, she sees beauty in a muscular woman in short hair and a plaid shirt – unaware that in his own way, Dad understands.

How well he knew, and his true thoughts and feelings, Alison will never know.

In college, the young woman realizes what now seems obvious; she is a lesbian. She researches in books about sexuality, then learns hands-on from Joan (Teneh B.C. Karimu). After coming out to her parents, she gets their truth in return. And within weeks, her father is dead.

Our trio of Alisons excellently bring the story to life, especially charming Wray. Olson has a knack for making every role seem like it was written for him – this is no exception. Ristine perfectly portrays the longsuffering wife and mother, able to show so much in just an expression; her song, when Helen feels free to let her true feelings show, is the kind of moment that awards are given for.

Karimu presents the steadying influence of a good friend. And Brandon Alstott completes the cast as different characters, including Roy – a man who’s like an uncle to the kids, and much more to Bruce.

It’s easy to ride along on this emotional journey, because Alison isn’t the hero of her story (and neither can her father be, no matter how much she wishes it), she just wants to understand what makes her feel so different from the rest of the world. She’s still the girl who wants her Dad to lift her up, and through her search lifts him to examine the facets she can’t see clearly, no matter how hard she tries. She sees in her parents so many opportunities lost and abandoned, wondering what that bodes for her.

For all who feel different – maybe “queer” in either the traditional or LGBTQ sense – this show (presented in a single movie-length act) is highly recommended. Is it “fun”? Hard to say, but it can certainly feel like home.

This musical opens the final season at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) before the Phoenix moves to its new downtown location. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 22. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

Girl seeks protection from the forces of history in ‘Golem of Havana’ at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Just the title of the new musical playing at the Phoenix Theatre, “The Golem of Havana,” suggests the complex nature of its story, but the various threads weave together into a fascinating historical tapestry, set in Cuba during its 1950s Revolution.

The title entity is dreamed up by a Jewish girl in Havana, inspired by the legends her family brought with them from eastern Europe (having survived the Nazis and gotten away from Soviet occupiers). Rebecca (Lydia Burke) creates a homemade comic book about the Golem – a giant clay guardian crafted and enchanted by a Rabbi to protect the people – that followed the Jews across the ocean to continue its service.

Her father, Pinchas (Eric J. Olson), is a struggling tailor living on dreams, while her mother, Yutka (Lori Ecker), tries to keep his ambitions grounded. Meanwhile, family friend and government policeman Arturo (Carlos Medina Maldonado) promises to help them through his connections.

Rebecca befriends the family’s black Cuban maid, Maria (Teneh B.C. Karimu), who worries about the fate of her son, Teo (Ray Hutchins), who has joined the Revolutionaries. While praying for her son’s safe return, Maria introduces Rebecca to her faith in the goddess Yemaya, and at a time when the Hebrew god seems so distant, this local deity feels more responsive when it seems, at first, that things are changing for the better.

But the faith and humanity of all are tested when Teo arrives at the family home, injured, and hunted by authorities seeking to execute him. Yutka confronts conflicting urges to protect the man or to turn him away and protect her family, while remembering what happened to her and her sister (Betsy Norton) when they were betrayed to the Nazis in Hungary.

The cast also features Wheeler Castaneda, Rob Johansen, and Paul Nicely as Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.

The songs and music (under the musical direction of Karimu) flow nicely with the story. Under the steady hand of director Bryan Fonseca, the gripping drama of people caught in the changing tides of history keeps the focus on the heroic and tragic stories of individuals rather than the background events – a good thing, since neither the doomed Batista regime nor the imminent Castro victory are celebrated by history.

Burke gives us an appealing and endearing character. Hutchins reveals the pain that informs Teo’s choices. Olson’s happy optimist and Ecker’s pragmatic pessimist show how opposites do attract and make a family we can root for. Maldonado also does well in his layered portrayal of a man of mixed loyalties. Nicely shows his skill in revealing just enough humanity in a cold-hearted character to make him truly frightening.

As Rebecca says, stories matter, and “The Golem of Havana” matters not just as a Jewish story or a Cuban story, but also as a human story. It runs through July 16 on the Phoenix mainstage at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.