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 (Samantha 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.

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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.

CCP: Artist ‘dying’ to get popular in Twain farce

By John Lyle Belden

Mark Twain’s almost-forgotten farce, “Is He Dead?” has come alive in Fishers, thanks to Carmel Community Players.

Twain, the celebrated American author and humorist, wrote the play while traveling Europe and had planned on staging it in 1898, but those performances never happened. The script was rediscovered in 2002 and, adapted by noted playwright David Ives, finally reached Broadway in 2007.

Now it’s here.

A fictional version of actual master painter Jean-Francois Millet (played by Jaime Johnson) struggles to get noticed or even sell a single painting from his shabby home in Barbizon, France. His international circle of disciples, Chicago (Matt Hartzburg), Dutchy (Adam Powell) and O’Shaughnessy (Kelly Keller) recognize his genius, as do landladies Bathide (Lucinda Ryan) and Caron (Susan Hill), who don’t mind getting art for rent payments. But moneylender Bastien Andre (Larry Adams) wants real Francs in payment for debts owed, and threatens to foreclose not only on Millet’s studio, but also Monsieur Leroux (Keven Shadle), whose daughter he desires. However, Marie (Morgan Morton) is repulsed by Andre and is in love with Millet. Meanwhile, her sister Cecile (Monya Wolf) has her eye on Chicago.

Desperate for a way to quickly raise thousands of Francs, our artists get an idea after a clueless English art buyer (Dave Bolander in one of a number of hilarious roles) states that genius is only rewarded after the artist has died. Chicago then talks Millet into “contracting an illness” so horrible as to guarantee publicity of his impending “death.” Meanwhile, Millet appears in a dress as his twin sister, the Widow Tillou, to inherit the inevitable riches.

This being a comedy, of course, things don’t go entirely as planned.

Twain’s wry humor is woven throughout this satirical farce, and little moments of 19th-century style silliness work in the overall context. Johnson plays Millet as a down-on-his-luck everyman who just wants what’s due him, playing it straight against the comic antics of his students – and his scenes in drag are “Some Like it Hot” hilarious. Chicago, our lone American character, appears to be Twain’s surrogate in the story, a fast-talking charming schemer in the mold of Tom Sawyer, and Hartzburg turns on the charm in the role. Powell is like a caricature of a caricature, but is so likable it works. Wolf gets in some great moments with the old girl-disguised-as-man gag. And Johnson is delectably “boo-hiss!” worthy as our top-hatted melodrama villain, complete with twirled mustache.

Direction is by Mark Tumey, who said he came to love the play while portraying Andre in a production in Arizona.

The show’s social commentary on art and fame resonates a bit today, but mostly this is just a fun evening with the work of one of America’s greatest writers. As CCP is still seeking a full-time home, performances for this play are at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers, through June 24. Call 317-815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.org.

IRT puts on ‘Noises Off’

By John Lyle Belden

We know how the workplace can be the site of ridiculous interpersonal drama, so imagine how it can get when you have a group of temperamental artistic folks in the same space for hours on end – you get something like “Noises Off,” the Michael Frayn farce on stage through May 20 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

On a January day in a forgettable English town, the cast of the comedy “Nothing On” – which explores the humor inherent in multiple platters of sardines – are rehearsing less than 24 hours before the play opens, with director Lloyd Dallas (IRT mainstay Ryan Artzberger) at his wits’ end. Dotty (Hollis Resnik) struggles with where to place the sardines, while Frederick (Robert Neal) struggles with his character’s motivation. Brooke (Ashley Dillard) only seems to have room in her brain for her lines, while Garry (Jerry Richardson) and Belinda (Heidi Kettenring) scramble to be in the right spots for them to make sense. It’s hoped that aging thespian Selsdon (Bob Riley) will be sober and on time, so stage manager Tim (Will Allan) is on standby as understudy. Meanwhile, assistant stage manager Poppy (Mehry Eslaminia) jumps to Dallas’s every demand.

The eventful run-through of the first act gives us an idea of what’s supposed to happen on stage. Next, midway through the tour of “Nothing On,” we see what’s happening backstage. Nerves and relationships are frayed as Brooke threatens to walk out, Selsdon keeps finding the whiskey, and Dallas ends up in a very prickly situation. Finally, the third act brings us to the memorable final performance of the tour, during which some improvisation becomes necessary.

The genius of this play is the perfectly timed “bad” timing, everything going “wrong” in just the right way. As is the standard at IRT, this cast has it down, making slamming doors and slipping on sardines an art and moving props such as a bottle, an axe or a cactus like a ballet. Praise must also go to scenic designer Bill Clarke for the two perfectly arranged coordinated sets, as well as director David Bradley for containing the chaos for a thoroughly entertaining show.

Find the IRT at 140 W. Washington St., near Circle Centre in downtown Indianapolis. Find info and tickets at irtlive.com or call 317-635-5252.

Foreign affairs are hilarious with Mud Creek’s brilliant ‘Amorous Ambassador’

By Wendy Carson

Mud Creek Players are sending their 2017-18 season out on a very high note with their production of Michael Parker’s hilarious farce, “The Amorous Ambassador.” While the show is a continuation of the saga of “The Sensuous Senator” (which Mud Creek staged in 2016), you need not have seen the previous production to enjoy this play.

The story centers on “Hormone Harry” Douglas, who, after losing his bid for the Presidency, was appointed as Ambassador to England. He and his family have now set up household in a nice little cottage in the countryside, complete with a butler. As we join the family unit, they have each decided to take off in separate ways for the weekend. Prior to leaving, though, each of them confirms that Perkins, the butler, will be “the soul of discretion” should anything occur. So daughter Debbie is off to make memories with her girlfriends; Lois, his doting wife, is off to the spa; and Harry plans to play golf in Scotland.

Once the wife and daughter have left, Harry and sexy neighbor, Marian, begin their tryst, including costumes to fulfil their fantasies: Marian’s is a French maid. But as soon as they exit the stage, Debbie reappears with her boyfriend, Joe, for their own little weekend of togetherness. Add to this, a bomb threat at the embassy suddenly brings security chief Captain South and Harry’s ditzy secretary, Faye, on site to turn the cottage into a temporary Embassy – complete with a total lockdown of the perimeter. Now Marian has to pretend to be a real servant, while Debbie adds a wig and dress to her friend, “Josephine.” The result is a sidesplitting evening of confusion and overall silliness.

Ronan Marra does a great job at keeping Harry’s lustful advances going while appearing to be in charge. Colin Landberg is masterful through the trio of characters he is given to embody – Joe, Josephine and “Marc Anthony.” Sara Castillo Dandurand handily keeps Debbie believing in her father’s virtue even while seemingly compromising her own. Katie Carter’s portrayal of “Maid Marian” shows that she is certainly up for anything. Tom Riddle brings all of the pomp and ruggedness that Captain South’s character demands, with a delightful slapstick turn. While Sherry Compton’s character of Lois is not on the stage for very long, she shines brightly in those moments that she is performing.

While everyone does a wonderful job of playing their roles for all that they are worth, I would like to highlight two exceptional performances:

  • Ann Ellerbrook’s take on the hot, blonde, airhead secretary, Faye, shows the amazing range that a seemingly one-note character can become under the correct actor’s interpretation of a role. She truly brought her character to life in a way that really made me wish I could see more of that character’s story.
  • Craig Kemp is likewise amazing for keeping his character of Perkins, the properly stogy English butler, from going too far into camp mode. While making sure that his character’s upper lip stayed as stiff as one would expect it to be and a slightly raised eyebrow could cause you to wither, he managed to keep Perkins a warmly accessible grandfatherly figure. That sort of depth in what, again, should have been a simple one-note character shows great range and depth of talent.

With everything happening right now, we can all use a spot of silliness and a good laugh, and this show presents it in spades.

Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through May 5 at the Mud Creek Players “Barn,” 9740 E. 86th St. (near Geist). Get tickets and info at www.mudcreekplayers.org.

Triple-timing playboy in for bumpy landing in IRT’s ‘Boeing Boeing’

By John Lyle Belden

Everybody has a fool-proof system, until they are proven the fool. In “Boeing Boeing,” the popular farce by Marc Camoletti on the beautifully-set stage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Bernard (Matt Schwader) has the perfect love-life arrangement.

This architect playboy juggles three fiances, all air hostesses on different carriers. Thanks to ever-reliable airline timetables, they arrive at his Paris flat on different days, each oblivious of the others, keeping Bernard perpetually engaged – in both senses of the word. But faithful maid Berthe (Elizabeth Ledo) is getting tired of the shuffle, and Bernard’s college buddy Robert (Chris Klopatek), visiting from Wisconsin, asks the fateful question: What if all three of the women are in town at the same time?

Impossible, Bernard says – until it happens.

Hillary Clemens charms as Gloria, the hot American stewardess far more clever than she appears. Melisa Pereyra is siren-seductive as Gabriella, the passionate Italian. Greta Wohlrabe comes closest to the line between character and caricature as German hostess Gretchen, a Teutonic Amazon with a strudel-sweet side.

Schwader and Klopatek have the knack for the frantic acting required of this kind of comedy, as cool collected Bernard becomes more unraveled and fish-out-of-water Robert starts to go with the flow. In fact, all the cast have the rhythms of the farce down, with well-timed entrances and exits through seven sets of doors, the well-choreographed gags presenting a situation spiraling hilariously out of control.

As for Berthe – the eye of the hurricane, unlistened-to voice of reason, and keeper of the secrets no matter how morally questionable – Ledo’s performance is a bold punctuation to every scene, which she can’t be accused of stealing because she already owns it. Her look is reminiscent of Edna from “The Incredibles” (I couldn’t help but want her to say something about “no capes”) but it works in that she, too, is no one to trifle with and the best help to serve a show’s wacky plot.

Make your reservation for high-flying fun at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, next to Circle Centre, through April 2. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.