A toast to Belfry’s convent comedy

By John Lyle Belden

It seems nuns are an easy target for entertaining and eccentric characters who also have the noblest of intentions. We get another fun take on this trope in “Drinking Habits” by Tom Smith, presented by The Belfry Theatre in Noblesville.

The Sisters of Perpetual Sewing are a small but important order in the Catholic Church. If the Pope pops a button, the garment gets sent to the little convent somewhere in the U.S.A. to get fixed right up. But the sacred stitches don’t raise quite enough funds to keep the lights on, so Sisters Augusta and Philamena (Jennifer Poynter and Cathie Morgan) have let the grape juice ferment and are selling the wine in town. This is kept secret from Mother Superior (Barb Weaver), who is so anti-alcohol, she won’t even allow the words for such beverages to be said aloud.

Thus we get some interesting euphemisms: Devil’s Delight, Satan’s Mouthwash, Lucifer’s Libations, etc.

Fortunately, the secretive Sisters have always-helpful second-generation groundskeeper George (Bryan Gallet) to help.

But local newshounds Sally (Sarah Powell) and Paul (Jeff Haber) have gotten a tip about the secret vineyard and are infiltrating the convent to investigate. It happens that the Order is expecting the arrival of a new member, so Sally becomes Sister Mary Mary, while Paul becomes Father Paul, her brother. Then the actual nun, Sister Mary Catherine (Sarah Eberhardt), arrives, and things start to get confusing. Add to the mix the neighboring priest and amateur magician Father Chenille (Chris Taylor) and word that the Vatican has sent spies to ensure all its facilities are worth keeping open, and confusion, mistaken identities, multi-layered lies, and other farcical elements rule the day.

Aside from quick entrances and exits from multiple doors, the cast also mines comedy gold from the Order’s ritual of keeping silent at random points during the day. (Apparently, wild gesturing and miming is not a sin.) The goofy goings-on crescendo to a wild ending of revelations (and matrimony!) that would make Shakespeare’s head spin.

Direction is by Belfry board president Nancy Lafferty.

Poynter and Morgan are wonderful in a study of opposites – quick-thinking, fast-talking Augusta, and nervous Philamena, who literally can’t tell a lie. Gallet is handed a challenge in keeping George easy-going and kind without coming across as too simple-minded – he’s the average-sharpness knife in the drawer. Powell and Haber ably portray two people in a situation way over their heads, while also working through unresolved feelings. Weaver has Mother Superior cool and in control, but isn’t too sharply stern, and manages to be out of the loop of what’s going on without looking foolish. Taylor makes Chenille charming in a way that gives the Father “dad” vibes. Eberhardt is so much fun to watch as situations, and Mary Catherine’s growing guilt, put her continually on-edge.

This show is very funny and well worth the drive up to Noblesville, playing through Sunday, July 3, at Ivy Tech Auditorium, 300 N. 17th, St. Get information and tickets at thebelfrytheatre.com.

And, just a thought for a future season: Smith also wrote a “Drinking Habits 2.”

Wild ‘Rumors’ in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

There’s a reason why Neil Simon’s classic farce, “Rumors,” is a community theatre staple. It’s an intricate yet easy to follow comedy that allows local actors used to one others’ rhythm to pull out all the stops and set an appreciative audience practically rolling in the aisles with laughter.

Main Street Productions in Westfield stepped up to the challenge, and under the direction of Jen Otterman, succeeded wildly. Otterman notes that the theme undergirding the wacky plot is friendship – especially the kind that freaks out at the thought of a BFF getting a soiled reputation. We get this sense immediately when dear friends Ken and Chris Gorman (Robert Webster Jr. and Laura Givens) arrive at the home of their best friend Charlie (who happens to be Deputy Mayor of New York) for his anniversary party to find him upstairs, injured, and his wife Myra missing. And did they hear a gunshot?

Before getting any answers, more friends arrive: Accountant Lenny Ganz and his wife Claire (Josh Elicker and Monya Wolf); then Ernie the analyst and Cookie the TV cooking-show host (Jason Vernier and Kelsey VanVoorst); and finally, Glenn and Cassie Cooper (Jan Hauer and Sara Castillo Dandurand), he’s running for State Senate and she’s running him ragged with her crystal obsession and constant suspicions of his infidelity.

Before it’s all done, there will be numerous well-meaning falsehoods, a literally deafening second gunshot, DIY meal and cocktails, and further damage to Lenny’s BMW. So, when Officers Welch and Pudney (Nathaniel Taff and Nicole Amsler) come around asking questions, what do these paranoid partygoers say?

Again, this is all very, very funny. Comic goddess VanVoorst is in her element, as well as Webster, a versatile talent who has become a familiar face on the Westfield stage. The rest of the cast stay right on the pace, delivering one zinger or sight-gag after another. Givens and Wolf have Lucy-and-Ethyl chemistry and timing. Elicker puts the “suffer” in longsuffering but keeps it all light. Vernier is a hoot as the expert on human behavior who barely has a clue. Hauer displays the desperation to come out of this with his dignity and campaign intact. Dandurand brings flaky fun without going over the top. Even Taff gets to shine, as the cop with little tolerance for foolishness finding himself in Fool Central.

Rumor has it you will have a great time at performances Thursday through Sunday, June 9-12, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get info and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

Wacky ‘Idiots’ in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

“Flaming Idiots” is not Shakespeare, but the Bard does get a shout-out. This farce by Tom Rooney, presented by Main Street Productions in Westfield through Sunday (April 10) is the kind of laugh-out-loud escapist fare that comes in handy in ever-troubled times. 

The cast features many kinds of fools: 

  • Phil (Ethan Romba) is really good at jumping into things and not thinking them through, while convinced he has a fool-proof plan. So he accepts a local mobster’s offer to take over a failing restaurant, though Phil knows next to nothing about the business (which is apparently more than enough, in his mind). 
  • Phil’s partner Carl (Austin Uebelhor) is the kind of general dunce who is randomly curious about everything and understands nothing. His one stroke of genius is creating the eatery’s signature cocktail, the Flaming Idiot (“One drink makes you silly,” he explains.) 
  • Local police Officer Task (Jeffrey Haber) has an IQ somewhere between that of his horse and his last donut (so, of course he’s studying to become Detective) but at least he’s friendly and helpful.
  • Eugene (Austin Hookfin) is a waiter and aspiring ACTOR! who is really invested in his method and eager for his chance to shine.
  • Ernesto Santiago (Chris Taylor), a busboy from the barrios of Norway(?), seems to have some sense about him, as well as a mysterious briefcase, though he does lose his cool when anyone mentions “laundry.”
  • Bernadette (Wendy Brown) is the most sensible of the bunch, and the best vegetarian chef in town, but also completely deaf from a recent accident. (Will this be exploited for comic misunderstandings? Note the word “farce” above.)
  • Jayne Fryman (Ashley Engstrom) seems to do everything for the hometown newspaper – advertising, food critic, crime beat – which, having been a small-paper writer myself, I find the most believable character. However, she is plagued with a “wardrobe malfunction” that is the cause of a lot of cheeky laughs.
  • The play’s plot includes the idea to fake a mob murder to give Phil’s Restaurant the buzz of noteriety; enter Louie (Eric Bowman), the past-his-prime hitman who needs a diagram to make sure he goes through the correct door.
  • Aside from Bernadette, the smartest character by far is a random Body that, when shaved, somehow resembles a famous stage producer. He gives a truly moving performance (in a wheeled office chair).

Actually, it takes a lot of smarts to make an “idiotic” performance funny, and this crew delivers a MENSA-level effort under the genius direction of Brian Nichols. And for an all-ages show, you end up seeing a lot of underwear!

It’s all in good fun, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get information and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

Civic steps up with Hitchcock comedy

By John Lyle Belden

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most acclaimed films is also one of his earliest successes. “The 39 Steps,” a 1935 spy thriller set in Britain, not only reflected the tensions of inevitable war with Germany, but also set the style and elements of most of his classic movies that followed. They include the innocent man on the run; settings in famous landmarks; the icy, beautiful blonde…

However, when you see “The 39 Steps” as presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, you might think of another famous filmmaker – notably Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety,” in which the comic genius thoroughly spoofed Hitchcock’s work. Yes, this thriller is a comedy! Adapted from the film (and the 1915 novel by John Buchan) by Patrick Barlow, from a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, the noir farce involves just four frantic actors and (like “Anxiety”) a few references to other Hitch classics.

Matt Kraft has just one role, but it’s a doozy. His Richard Hannay gets thrown into all manner of unlikely situations, including being set up for murder. To clear his name, he must rush from London to Scotland and back. Along his story, he encounters Haley Glickman as a doomed spy, a starved-for-excitement Scottish wife, and most importantly the woman who is determined to have him arrested, until she realizes the cops aren’t real. All other roles are played by Eric Reiberg and John Walls, in the program as Man #1 and Man #2, though the roles are also referred to as the Clowns. This latter label definitely works, as they slip into various characters and caricatures exhibiting Monty Python-level hilarity. For their part(s), Kraft and Glickman manage an excellent mix of slapstick and leading-couple chemistry.

Sharp direction is provided by John Michael Goodson (if he did a Hitchcock-style cameo, I missed it). Clever stage design by Ryan Koharchik has set elements all on rollers, so scene changes match the manic pace of the show.

No need to go all the way to the Highlands for this adventure, just as far north as Carmel, on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts through Feb. 19. For info and tickets, go to civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

CCP serves up wacky ‘Tenor’

By John Lyle Belden

A Broadway hit that has become a community theatre favorite, Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me A Tenor” is back on stage courtesy of Carmel Community Players.

For the unfamiliar, this hilarious farce takes place in the mid-20th century, set entirely in a Cleveland hotel room. The local opera company has secured a performance by world-renowned tenor “Il Stupendo” Tito Morelli (JD Walls). Mr. Saunders (Thomas Smith), the show’s producer, knows of the singer’s appetites for booze and women, and warns his young assistant, Max (Tyler Marx) to keep a close eye on him. Tito arrives with wife Maria (Sonja Distefano), who is furious about everything, especially Tito. Add to this the visits by Saunders’ daughter Maggie (Caity Withers), who loves Max but adores Tito; ambitious soprano Diana (Rachelle Woolston), who will do anything to get a career boost from the tenor; local socialite Julia (Sally Carter) who wants nothing more than to be seen with Morelli in public; and a singing bellhop (Joe Wagner), insisting on giving an impromptu audition. It’s important to note that Max is a talented aspiring singer, as well. Also, we lose track of the number of sleeping pills Tito takes for his afternoon nap.

The result is two full acts of slamming doors, sharply-executed physical comedy, and all the misunderstandings you can stand — along with some nice moments of operatic singing. Under the direction of Susan Rardin, this bunch take to their roles with gusto, each pitch perfect from Smith’s paternal surliness, to Withers’ charm, Woolston’s seductiveness, Distefano’s fire, Wagner’s cheekiness, Carter’s posh attitude and Walls’ resignation as he finds himself on the wildest ride in Ohio outside King’s Island. Marx as our everyman at the heart of an ever-deepening situation wins us over with his nervous aplomb as Max somehow makes it through it all. Also, as the featured opera is “Pagliacci” (the tragic clown), the tendency of white face makeup to come off on others adds its own comic element.

This “stupendo” production has one more weekend, playing through March 8 at The Cat performance venue, 254 Veterans Way (near the downtown arts district), in Carmel. Call 317-815-9387 or visit www.CarmelPlayers.org.

 

Silly Santa shenanigans in Greenfield

By John Lyle Belden

You don’t have to have children to get a little silly around Christmas. In fact, allegedly normal adults can find themselves in the goofiest situations, especially when you throw in a couple of Santa suits and some festive pajamas.

This is the scene in “Sorry, Wrong Chimney,” a farce by Jack Sharkey and Leo W. Sears presented by CrazyLake Acting Company in Greenfield. Set in a more innocent time — around the 1980s — recently-married Samantha (Alexandra Kern) wants to share a romantic first Christmas with husband David (Luke Agee), but he is always working late. She confides her frustration to neighbor and best friend Natalie (Stephani McDole), who assures her there’s nothing to worry about. But then she overhears something between Natalie and David — could they be having a fling? Sam calls Natalie’s husband, Bill (Corey Yeaman), for advice; he had been napping, so comes over in his pajamas and robe — this will prove problematic.

But the trouble really begins when Bill, a psychiatrist, is talked into using his skill as a hypnotist. But instead of mesmerizing David to reinforce his love of Sam, his charm snares the Santa Claus Burglar! The bad Santa (Trever Brown) actually believes he is Kris Kringle, which his loving fiance Sheila (Chris Vehorn) has learned to live with. 

Oh, and there is also an inquisitive police officer (Coy Hutcherson). What else could go wrong?

The result is one very funny holiday diversion, complete with slapstick, slamming doors, goofy chase scenes, misplaced mesmerism and a little dirty dancing. Directed by Christine Schaefer, this talented cast elevate an okay script with a lot of great physical humor and total dedication to the absurdity in each scene.

Granted, I’ve got a soft spot for Greenfield since I used to work there, but trust me, it is again worth the drive to see “Sorry, Wrong Chimney,” Friday and Saturday, Dec. 13-14, and Dec. 20-22, at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40) downtown. Get info and tickets at crazylakeacting.com.  

Civic goes Wilde

By John Lyle Belden

If you think Victorian English manners and society were stuffy and insufferable, imagine how it was for someone living through it. Fortunately, Oscar Wilde had his rapier wit to help him skewer those pretensions in his masterpiece farce, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents in the cozy confines of the Studio Theater through April 6.

In 1890s London, among polite folks for whom ignorance is a virtue and honesty a vice, John (Ethan Mathias) and Algernon (Bradford Reilly) have been undertaking some “Bunburying” – that’s not code for something obscene; it’s just the simple practice of being one person in town, and another in the country. John is in love with Gwendolen (Carrie Schlatter), while Algernon has fallen in love with John’s ward, Cecily (Sabrina Duprey). But both ladies insist on marrying a man named Earnest. So both our heroes oblige, and hilarious confusion follows.

Gwendolen’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), is very particular about who the girl marries. Meanwhile, Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Miki Mathioudakis) is trying to get the attention of the Reverend Chasuble (Craig Kemp), but she is also hiding an important secret.

The incomparable Matt Anderson completes the ensemble as the butler at each house. Performances are top-notch, and even the scene changes are entertaining — executed by the actors under Anderson’s watchful eye.

When the world is full of absurdity, nonsense starts to make its own sort of sense. That was Wilde’s world then, and some could argue that reflects our world now. So, enjoy this Earnest effort at classic comedy.

The Studio Theater is at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For tickets and information, call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Mud Creek presents a little mystery with a lot of laughs

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a real treat to see stage veterans cut loose on a good American farce, such as the faces familiar to audiences at Mud Creek Players generating laughter with “Exit the Body.”

In the early 1960s – when telephones were not only still connected to the wall, in rural areas you still had to talk to the local operator – popular mystery writer Crane Hammond (played by Linda Eberharter) is spending a few weeks in the New England countryside to relax and work on her next novel, dragging reluctant secretary Kate (Barb Weaver) along. The cottage, just down the road from best friend Lillian (Judy McGroarty) and arranged by local real estate agent Helen (Ann Ellerbrook), has secrets of its own – including the possibility of hidden stolen diamonds! It appears that the housekeeper, Jenny (Savannah Jay), is in cahoots with local thug Randolph (Eric Matters) to recover those jewels, wherever they are.

Meanwhile, Lillian introduces her new husband, Lyle (Tim Long), but because of trouble with the old husband, she tells people that he is actually Crane’s husband, Richard (Joe Forestal – he’ll show up eventually). For local flavor, we have handyman/taxi driver/sheriff Vernon (Kevin Shadle). And for the titular Body, we have Phillip Smith (Tom Riddle), who could be anybody.

The hilarious slamming-door antics are helped along by a closet at the center of the set (designed by Jay Ganz) that opens into both the living room and the backstage library. The script and cast make full use of its comic and spooky (the body was there, now it’s gone!) possibilities. Though a mystery, this show delivers more laughs than chills, much like a Scooby-Doo episode for grown-ups.

Ellerbrook has Crane dealing with being in the plot rather than writing it, with McGroarty’s Lillian welcoming the diversion and Weaver’s Kate chewing the scenery with biting sarcasm. Long has Lyle just taking it all in stride. Generating the most laughs are Shadle – with a style reminiscent of a Carol Burnett cast member, keeping his character at the edge of absurdity – and Jay, whose airhead Jenny manages to charm while squeezing all the corn out of a Southern accent.

“Exit the Body” runs through Sept. 29 at the Mud Creek Players “Barn” at 9740 E. 86th St. (between Castleton area and Geist Reservoir). Call 317-290-5343 or visit www.mudcreekplayers.org.

ATI opens with hijinks of another ‘Tenor’ farce

By John Lyle Belden

You don’t need to have seen the Ken Ludwig farce “Lend Me a Tenor” (though you really should when you get the chance) to understand the sequel, Ludwig’s “A Comedy of Tenors,” now in its local premiere at Actors Theatre of Indiana.

In the original, we met world-famous tenor Tito Merelli – with ego and appetites to match his talent – performing in Cleveland. Now, a few years later, former Cleveland mayor Henry Saunders and his son-in-law Max (also characters from the earlier play) are managing Tito in a Three Tenors extravaganza in Paris. Max, a rising star in opera, is listed as the third.

Suddenly, the number two on the bill cancels, sending Saunders and Max scrambling. Meanwhile, Tito’s relationship with wife Maria is tempestuous as ever – and then there’s his free-spirited daughter Mimi. Also, Tito’s biggest operatic rival, Carlo Nucci, is in the hotel. And finally, a hot-blooded Russian soprano with whom Tito once had a fling, Racon, is in town. Summon the singing bellhop, and let the slamming-door fun commence!

Melodrama and misunderstandings get under way from the first scene. The laughs come steadily, with plenty of physical comedy, as the plot rolls with its own twists that differentiate it from the previous play.

Don Farrell plays Tito as a runaway train of emotions – then in the second act, he has to work twice as hard, an exhausting performance that pays off hilariously. Mark Fishback plays Saunders as nonstop neurotic, the control freak with nothing under control. Nic Eastlund’s Max is the softer counterpoint to his boss, a character less fearful than in his prior appearance, but now distracted by the impending birth of his first child. Amy Bodnar puts plenty of fire in her portrayal of Maria, and the same spark is in Jenny Reber’s Mimi. Brynn Tyszka also brings the heat as Racon, working it to comic effect. As Carlo, hunky Jacob Gerard Barnes pratfalls as good as he looks, And when Farrell, Barnes and Eastlund sing, you know this show was cast perfectly.

A fun start to the ATI season, “A Comedy of Tenors” runs through Sept. 30 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Box office at 317-843-3800 or thecenterpresents.org, or visit atistage.org for information.

Goofy ‘Goon Show’ showcases young talent

By John Lyle Belden

When it comes to kids on stage, it’s easy to allow for a bit of silliness. Mud Creek Players’ ACT youth program makes full use of that license to hilarious effect with the comedy mystery “Murder at the Goon Show.”

In this farce by Douglas Winters, a very worried producer-emcee, Greg, keeps an old theater alive by hosting “The Goon Show,” a televised odd-talent revue that’s like “The Gong Show,” but without the gong or celebrity judges, and with more suspicious activity. When yet another threatening message appears in a jelly doughnut, he fears he won’t survive the night – but it’s the mentalist who should have seen it coming…

Justin Hoffer’s fun performance as Greg reminded me of Kermit in the old “Muppet Show,” constantly put upon and stressed out to organize a madcap bunch of weirdos, with even the staff not being much help. He gets some reassurance from assistant Sandra (Sarah Semon), assistance from stagehand Pop (Noah Taylor) and attitude from the shady props master Flossie (Jackie Davis). To round up the talent, he relies on agent Alf (Cameron Davis, his slapstick prowess aided by rubbery limbs).

And what talent! (Or should I say, “what talent?”) Actually, it takes a special effort to be good at being “bad,” and these young actors show they have the chutzpah to pull it off. Rylee Odle manages to be ironically awesome in two roles – the awful warm-up comic, and a comically bad dancer. We also get charming Julia Heddon making noises in a birdcage; earnest Ross Gandy trying – just trying – to put his body through a tennis racquet; Jayme Ganz as an actually-good puppeteer, just too mouthy to be a ventriloquist; Alison Quigley as a mime with a lot to say; and the regrettable “talent” of Chris Sullivan as the Amazing Ingesto. Then there’s the confident and mysterious Zorina (Jenna Rigdon), who claims to hypnotize via binoculars.

To lend some sanity to the proceedings, we also get Jackson Stollings as a police detective (y’know, to solve the murder), and Erin Keller as a psychological therapist.

All these and many more crowd the stage, yet young first-time director Carynton Howard manages to make it all flow, with many laugh-out-loud moments including a sly nod to a Broadway favorite.

One more weekend (through Sunday, July 29) for the “Goon Show” at the Mud Creek Barn, 9740 E. 86th St., between the Castleton area and Geist Reservoir. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.org.