Orange is the new Bard

This is part of Indy Bard Fest 2022, the annual Indianapolis area Shakespeare Festival. For information and tickets, visit indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

Welcome to a secure common room at a local women’s prison. The ladies of D Block present for the visitors (us) the fruits of their fine arts program, a staging of William Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” adapted by the company with director Glenn Dobbs.

For those like me who sometimes struggle to keep all the Histories straight, Richard II (1377-1399) rules England over 150 years after the fall of King John – who was brother to Richard I (Lionheart), among the first Plantagenet Kings, and the unfortunate subject of another Bard Fest offering this year. Richard will end his reign childless (no obvious heir) as the Plantagenets fracture into the Houses of Lancaster and York in the Wars of the Roses. Also, like John, he is not regarded well by history and lore, considered a tyrant especially as he was a big believer in a king’s absolute power by Divine Right.

As presented by these orange-clad thespians, we easily accept that the mostly-male characters will all have feminine voices. This cast of local actors (not real felons, but play along) get to engage in two levels of character work. Aside from portraying the machinations of the 14th Century English Court, they are also women forged in difficult circumstance, feeling a familiarity to this treacherous culture. At any moment, your blood could be on the floor. To emphasize a challenge, a pack of premium smokes cast down is your gauntlet. Which boss inmate you follow can be a matter of life or death, and that crown – whether metal or bandana – is never fully secure.

Outstanding talents take the lead: Afton Shepard as Richard and Rayanna Bibbs as cousin/rival/successor Bolingbroke; with Damick Lalioff as the Duke of York, Evangeline Bouw as Richard’s faithful noble Aumerle, Savannah Scarborough as Bolingbroke’s right hand Northumberland, Nan Macy as John of Gaunt and the Duchess of York, and Sofy Vida as the banished Mowbray and secretive Bishop of Carlisle. Great contributions as well by Missy Rump, Genna Sever, Gracie Streib, Rachel Kelso, Jamie Devine, Gillian Bennett, Gillian Lintz, and a special shout-out to young Ellie Richart as Richard at coronation.

Shepard gives the kind of strong performance we’ve come to expect from her, showing all the various infamous aspects of the King, delivered with an instability that flows from the madness of power to the wilder madness of being without it. Bibbs gives a commanding performance like someone who somehow knows he will be the title character of the next two plays in the series. Bouw gives us a tragic character we can feel for, a young Duke sure he is on the right side – until he isn’t – then all too desperate to redeem himself. Lalioff smartly plays York as shrewd and decisive (things Richard is not), enabling him to ride the changing tides. Macy is again a marvel in her paternal and maternal roles.

It is from this play we get the line, “let us… tell sad stories of the death of kings,” and what a story we are delivered here! Three performances remain, Friday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, in the Indy Eleven Theatre at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis.  

What a ‘Dream’!

By John Lyle Belden

There is a land of centuries-old mysteries, equal parts pagan celebration and reverent tradition working in unique harmony, where in shadowy woods the very air is sodden with magick – Louisiana.

It is in the bayou town of Athens that we find the familiar yet always fresh William Shakespeare rom-com “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” presented by Bard Fest with Arts for Lawrence in the park amphitheater behind Theater at the Fort, a production called “Shakespeare at the Fort.”

As appropriate to a free public “in the park” Shakespeare play, this “Dream,” directed by Matthew Socey, is highly entertaining regardless of if you’ve practically memorized it, or you slept through high school Lit and have only heard the title in conversation. Wendy said to me afterward that this is not only one of the best “Midsummers” she has seen, but easiest version to follow.

For those who need it, here’s the silly and overall simple plot (Cajun version): The most respected man in the Parish, Duke Theseus (Jo Bennett) and his lovely amazon, Hippolyta (Afton Shepard) are to be married, but they are first asked to settle the engagement of Demetrius (Matthew Walls) to Hermia (Maggie Lengerich) at the insistence of her mama Egeus (Sarah Froehlke) because Hermia wants to marry Lysandra (Kristie Shuh). Fair Helena (Evangeline Bouw) wishes to wed Demetrius, who is repulsed by her playing so easy-to-get. The Duke puts it all off to the wedding celebration day, and everyone agrees to disagree.

Most of the action occurs out in the spooky forest outside town.

Is that a Tulane track star at home for summer break that we see? Naw, it’s Robin Goodfellow (Diane Tsao)! One of the bayou faerie folk, that trickster Puck only answers to the local voodoo king, Oberon (Bennett), who is having some words with his queen Titania (Shepard) over the custody of a little Indian girl becoming their half-fae Changeling (Beatrice Hartz). To aid in childcare are Titania’s faeries Cobweb (Jamie Devine), Moth (Samantha Kelly), and Mustardseed (Monica Hartz).

Then, trompin’ around these woods are common folk of the Mechanical trades who wish to put on a play for the Duke’s wedding, rehearsing in secret. Exceedingly patient director Petra Quill (Chynna Fry) is staging the old favorite “Pyramus and Thisbee” starring Flute (Justina Savage) as Thisbee, Starveling (Emily Hauer) as Moonshine, Snout (Beverly Roche) as Wall, Snug (Froehlke) as a Gator, and the colorful Bottom (Kelsey VanVoorst) as Pyramus. But then, stuff happens.

A lot of stuff happens – go see the play!

The vicinity of New Orleans is a perfect setting, and not just to try out some passable Southern accents. The environment is embraced in the music used, costuming, and just the otherworldly air of the whole show. More people have watched “True Blood” and other bayou-set stories than have visited Greece, so engaging the audience is easy. The change in what kind of beast chases Thisbee works perfectly and adds to the comedy. (Fear the Chomp!) It all contributes to a flavorful comic gumbo that goes down easy.

And finally, we have a place where the Elizabethan habit of English people always saying “adieu” makes sense.

The stage would be a bit small for most serious productions, but the intimate nature of it and the surrounding lawn allows for an immersive and interactive experience. Entrances and exits are literally from and to anywhere, fairies dance with kids in the audience, and in an ingenious move, the nobles viewing the Mechanicals’ play are seated in the exact center of the audience. Rather than divide our attention at one end of the stage, they are out of the corners of our eyes, allowing us to enjoy the unintentional hilarity of the play-within-the-play on the stage, while they comment and quip like posh robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The cross-gender casting, which has become more common across all stages in recent years, feels more natural here, and non-hetero feelings add to the stress of our four mortal lovers. In a great mockery of Shakespeare-era plays having boys play women, Savage shines as (pardon if I’m wrong on personal gender) a female actor playing a man who resents having to play a woman. Fry’s Petra aside, the other Mechanicals portray rough men in a gentle art (adding to comic potential).

The double-casting of Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta is good as it always is in bringing a unity to the overall play, but largely stopping there avoids audience confusion. (Since we never see them in the same room, perhaps they are secretly the same entities? Voodoo works in mysterious ways.)

The whole cast, top to Bottom, are exceptional – which is praise I often heap on every one of these actors individually in practically everything they do. And to that I’ll add Guy Grubbs as Theseus’ servant Philostrate, whose every entry is a punchline.

The above aside, I’ll toss my text roses at the wonderful surprise that is 7-year-old Beatrice Hartz. Anyone who saw the advance photos of Shepard holding the Changeling as just promotional can be forgiven (if I can be) for thinking her just a dancing prop in the play. With the assurance of her mother in the cast (and her father and a best friend in the front row opening night), she flits her way into and out of her every scene and cue like a pro. Her confidence radiates, and feeds into her character as the fellow fae play along. In this world, she will be become a power to rival her sitters, so it adds meaning as she literally calls their dances at one point, and when she places her hand before a character in a “halt” gesture (which is obeyed) we almost feel the invisible door close. She even gets to speak a line.

Classic with a twist? A drug-induced fever-dream by Tennessee Williams? However you think of it, the price is right – free, but please “buy” $0 tickets online for headcount. While the content is family friendly and the site is easy to reach, do note a few things. The weather is Louisiana-like with high heat and humidity, so shading, sunscreen, and hydration are advised as the play starts before sundown. A couple of food trucks are nearby, and picnics are OK. Bring your own lawn chairs, or sit on a blanket. And in these intimate confines the company goes old-school with no microphones on actors. Fortunately, most lines seem to be uttered in an excited state, but a little audience noise discipline, extending to the nearby swings, would be appreciated.

Performances are just this one weekend: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22; Saturday, July 23; and Sunday, July 24; at the small park behind Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (far north end of Indy’s Post Road). Tickets and info at indybardfest.com and artsforlawrence.org.

Bard Fest: Tragic Egyptian queen still fascinating

By John Lyle Belden

Indy Bard Fest presents the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company production of “Antony and Cleopatra” – which, though I know that’s the way Shakespeare titled it, should give the doomed last Queen of Egypt first billing.

Already an incredible talent, Afton Shepard throws herself fully into her title role, portraying Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” of moods and mental states. But under her demeanor, ranging from stormy to sultry, burns a fierce intelligence. All this and more Mark Antony, well-portrayed by Darin Richart, sees, and dedicates himself to as they rule the Eastern third of the Roman Empire. But confict with fellow triumvir Caesar (the eventual Augustus, played by Thomas Sebald) is inevetable.

This production, directed by Ryan T. Shelton, pares down the cast and puts the focus more squarely on Cleopatra. Having ruled since she was a teen – and still showing fits of immaturity – she is also well traveled and educated. She knows a woman’s typical place in this world (much like ours, in a way) and is not afraid to use seductive charms to camoflauge her true wisdom.

Many characters are placed on the weary shoulders of Craig Kemp, who enters as the Soothsayer and appears as various messengers and soldiers as the story demands. The excellent cast includes Bobbi Bye as Caesar’s advisor Agrippa, Dana Lesh and Barb Weaver as Cleopatra’s servants Charmian and Iras, Duane Leatherman as third triumvir Lepidus, Jamie Devine as Caesar’s sister Octavia, Becca Bartley as Cleopatra’s guard Alexas, and Jet Terry as Antony’s faithful soldier Scarus. Kevin Caraher gets a meaty role in Enorbarbus, steadfast for Antony up to the point that he sees history turning and fearing himself on the wrong side, “when valor preys on reason.”

Gender-blind casting is nothing new in today’s theatre, but I liked that Caesar’s soldier Dolabella, played by Evangeline Bouw, seems to lend an element of feminine empathy in being the last Roman to guard Cleopatra at the end.

Scholars debate the fine points of even the original historical sources, but this powerful play gives a good sense of the era and the essence of the larger than life persons in it. We feel we have met Cleopatra and Antony, and it’s an honor.

Performances are Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 28, 30, 31) at The Cat Theater, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.