The war for Scotland’s crown has two distinct factions; this is their story — BONG BONG! (Bardfest review)

By John Lyle Belden

The action is already under way, with gunfire, sirens, heavily-armed soldiers. When the hurly-burly is done, the winning officer meets three strange women who greet him with titles he doesn’t have and aren’t likely to get. But when he meets the leader, one of those unlikely titles is granted to him – could he be fated for more? It doesn’t help that the boss named someone else his chief lieutenant. That puts two people between our man and the top of the power structure; but his persuasive and sexy wife has ideas on how to fix the situation – though there will be blood. Lots of blood.

This action movie playing out live at Bard Fest is Shakespeare’s “MacBeth.” It’s tightly scripted (about 90 minutes in one act) by First Folio Productions director Carey Shea, and set in an urban battle zone, more Syria than Scotland, with characters from your favorite cop shows (“Law and Order: Inverness” perhaps?).

The story is familiar – death, more witches, death, “out damned spot,” death – and the Bard’s tragedies get the use-guns-for-swords treatment from time to time, but this production also has what Indy’s theatre scene truly needs: more Nan Macy.

Macy, along with Janice Hibbard and Leah Hodson play the Wyrd Sisters, who seem to pop up everywhere. Or are we just looking through the eyes of MacBeth (Adam Tran), seeing reassurance that his dark deeds to gain the crown are inevitable and right? Or maybe it’s just a clever, efficient use of talented actors.

Devan Mathias is a hot, nasty Lady MacBeth, Ryan Ruckman a noble doomed king Duncan, and Chelsea Anderson and Nathan Thomas are both worthy of their badges as good-cops Macduff and Malcolm. Craig Kemp as Columbo-esque detective Ross strives to put the clues together. Justin Klein as tragic Banquo is our most sympathetic character – next to Jilayne Kistner as his hard-luck daughter Fleance.

The end result is engaging and entertaining. One can just take it at face value – wild action as an ambitious couple slay their way to the top, then face the consequences – or as a high-caliber examination of the lust for power and the dangers of unaddressed and untreated mental illness, never mind when it’s suffered by people in positions of authority.

Don’t be concerned by the legendary curse (that’s for the cast and crew to contend with), the Indy Eleven stage at the IndyFringe theater, 719 E. St. Clair, still stands. Remaining performances are tonight and Sunday (Oct. 28-29).

For information, see www.indyfringe.org.

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Bardfest: And now for something completely different

By John Lyle Belden

Yes, the title here is stolen from Monty Python, which has nothing to do with the third annual BardFest, now in Indianapolis – in the IndyFringe building – after a couple of years in Carmel. However, we are dealing with things that are British and unusual.

Shakespeare’s plays – aside from being public domain – tell such good stories that they lend themselves to numerous times and places. Thus the Bard’s three plays in this year’s festival get reinvented in interesting ways.

Thus BardFest 2017 presents:

* “Cymbeline,” presented by Garfield Shakespeare Company, a play with elements of both the Comedies and the Tragedies. Originally based on the legend of a British king during the Roman Empire, this version is in a parallel world right after the American Civil War – as though West Virginia had declared itself a separate kingdom, and the Republic was cool with it, as long as the taxes are paid. Adapted and directed by Anthony Johnson, it stars John Mortell as the title king, Ashley Chase Elliott as his Queen, Elisabeth Speckman as our heroine, Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, and Chris Burton as heroic Posthumous (yes, his actual name in the play).

* “MacBeth,” presented by First Folio Productions, the familiar cursed tragedy adapted to a tense 90 minutes by director Carey Shea. Medieval Scotland is transformed into a modern urban wasteland, where King Duncan (Ryan Ruckman) keeps order like a local sheriff or police chief. He awards a title to faithful MacBeth (Adam Tran), who had just had that promotion prophesied to him by a trio of weird women (Nan Macy, Janice Hibbard and Leah Hodson) – didn’t they also say he would become king? Lady MacBeth (Devan Mathias) is just happy her husband is finally in line with her murderous plans to seize the crown. However, Duncan’s lieutenants Macduff (Chelsea Anderson) and Malcolm (Nathan Thomas) quickly become suspicious of the ambitious couple when the king is killed.

* “The Taming of the Shrew,” presented by Catalyst Repertory, freely adapted by Catalyst founder Casey Ross. The famous Shakespeare comedy finds its misogyny mutated into a sassy, outrageous sort of musical, using modern pop songs to help tell the story – this is not “Kiss Me Kate.” At a late-20th-century tropical resort, bawdy innuendoes fly as lusty lounge singer Petruchio (Davey Pelsue) seeks to tame curvy, catty Katherina (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell). Meanwhile, noble Lucentio (Bradford Reilly) slyly wins the heart of Kate’s younger sister Bianca (Abby Gilster). Will boss Baptista (Tony Armstrong) see his daughters married off in birth order? Did you ever think a rockin’ anthem by The Darkness could be made into a heartfelt ballad?

* And for purists… well, as close as you could get was a manic production of the comedy, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,” presented by the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company during the festival’s first weekend. The Reduced Shakespeare hit by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield was taken on by local thespians Ron Richards, Ryan T. Shelton and Adam Workman, under the direction of Christy Clinton with occasional necessary assistance from stage manager Tamara Rulon.

Remaining performances are on both IndyFringe stages at 719 E. St. Clair, Thursday through Sunday (Oct. 26-29). “Cymbeline” is the more family-friendly (though its length could test the patience of younger patrons), while “MacBeth” is very violent and “Shrew” is very not-for-kids. For information and tickets, visit www.indyfringe.org/bard-fest.

Wendy and I will try to get more in-depth reviews of the individual shows up tomorrow, and will link back to here.

Indy companies expertly flesh out Richard III’s twisted skeleton

By John Lyle Belden

In 2012 came the stunning news of a human skeleton discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England. It was the twisted body of what history and legend regard as a twisted soul, King Richard III. This setting opens the Catalyst Repertory/First Folio production of William Shakespeare’s play about the infamous monarch at the IndyFringe Theatre.

In what would be the last years of England’s Wars of the Roses between contesting royal families, King Edward IV is sick and dying. Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, is reviled for his crippled body, which brings on his sour attitude. The clever Duke decides if he can’t look like a hero to gain the crown, he’ll be the villian. But between him and the throne are George, Duke of Clarence; nobles faithful to Edward’s wife, Queen Elizabeth; and the child heir, Edward, Prince of Wales.

Some people are going to have to die.

Matt Anderson completely transforms into Richard, with the help of costume artist Linda Schornhorst (whose excellent work adorns the whole cast). This, coupled with Anderson’s complete control of his body and expressions, keeps him the focus of every scene. He leers towards the audience, proudly revealing to us his schemes. He lurks like a menacing vulture as his plans unfold. He contorts himself into whatever ingratiating pose will fool those around him as he continues grasping to take, then desperately hold power.

Carey Shea anchors the play as doomed Clarence, heroic Richmond and the archaeologist who bridges the gap between history and today. Jay Hemphill is charming as the Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s cousin and co-conspirator until he becomes cursed with a conscience.

Also notable are the women of the play, Allison Clark Reddick as Elizabeth; Christina Howard as Lady Anne, Richard’s unwilling bride (and a few scenes as Lord Grey); Nan Macy as the Duchess of York, Richard’s disappointed mother; and Casey Ross as Queen Margaret, widow of a previous monarch and bitter prophet.

The children – Dalyn Stewart as Prince Edward and Lex Lumpkin as his cousin, the Duke of York – are both sharp.

And kudos to Doug Powers, Matthew Socey, Ryan Reddick, Kevin Caraher, Matthew Walls, Mark Cashwell and John Mortell in various roles. Thanks to Glenn L. Dobbs’ direction and the play being adapted to two hours, in two acts, by Dobbs, Ross and Ben Power, it’s not hard to follow the sprawling cast of characters. (Richard has many of them killed, anyway.)

Plays like this are always apropos in an era of political turmoil, and performances this good are worth seeing at any time.

“Richard III” runs through July 9 at the IndyFringe Basile stage, 719 E. St. Clair (by the intersection of St. Clair, College and Massachusetts Ave.). See indyfringe.org for info and tickets.

Three great plays at Bardfest

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

Bardfest had a great opening weekend, and has two more – Oct. 20-23 and 27-30 – at the little Carmel Theatre Company stage, 15 First Ave NE in Carmel’s downtown Arts District (former home to Carmel Community Players).

It was noted in the curtain speech of one show I attended that Indianapolis is about the only major metropolitan area without a Shakespeare Festival. Fortunately, Willie’s plays do reach the boards a few times a year in individual productions around Indy, including a free summer production in White River State Park. But having three shows by the Immortal Bard – only one of which you would likely name off the top of your head if asked to list his plays – is a wonderfully unique experience.

‘KING LEAR’

I confess to missing the First Folio production of “King Lear.” Fortunately, I was familiar with the play and I trust First Folio Productions to pull this classic off more than competently. The title character is played by David Mosedale, and the role of her eldest daughter Cordelia (and a turn as the Fool) by Ann Marie Elloitt, two of the best speakers of iambic pentameter I’ve seen in central Indiana. Sarah Froehlke and Beth Clark as Lear’s devious other daughters are no slouches, either, and excellence is reflected throughout the cast and crew list, including the incredible Tristan Ross.

For those unfamiliar, “Lear” is about a British king who decides to give his kingdom to his three daughters. When the eldest refuses to flatter him, he misunderstands her actions as an insult and banishes her. She ends up in France, and leads an invasion to save her father’s kingdom from the machinations of her sisters. Mix in more madness and intrigue, and end it all tragically, and you have an excellent evening of drama. Which I didn’t have to see, but I highly recommend you do if you can.

‘TWELFTH NIGHT’

I did get a look at Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” It runs down the Bard comedy checklist: Shipwreck? Check. Siblings in distress? Check. Thinly made, but still effective, disguises? Check. Misunderstandings? Check. Wild wooing, leading to unlikely marriage? Check and check!

Perhaps understanding this, Garfield Shakespeare Company and directors Chris Burton and Sam Brandys made this a highly entertaining production by blending conventional pop songs into the narrative – one in particular, you’d swear was written for the play – as well as having instrumentation performed live on stage, especially by Feste, the minstrel Fool, played with perfect charm by Ashley Chase Elliott.

Twin siblings Viola and Sebastian (fraternal, yet perceived by other characters as identical in appearance, performed by Abby Gilster and Spencer Elliott) have washed up on different shores of Illyria after their shipwreck, each presuming the other drowned. Viola disguises herself as a boy and goes to work for the local Duke Orsino (Benjamin Mathis), a single man pursuing the one woman who doesn’t want him, Lady Olivia (Audrey Stonerock). Orsino sends his new servant to deliver his messages of love, but Olivia instead falls for Viola-in-disguise – compounding the “boy”s confusion as s/he is smitten with Orsino. Meanwhile, Olivia’s brother, the drunken Sir Toby Belch (Jay Brubaker) and his dim-witted companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Monica Verdouw) are carousing with Feste, an apparently freelance Fool working in both the Duke and Lady’s households. They and Olivia’s servant Maria (Kate Ghormley), play a cruel but hilarious prank on the prideful fellow court member Malvolio (Anthony Johnson), which only adds to the wild goings on – made even wilder when Sebastian makes his way to Olivia’s house.

Confused yet? It’s a Shakespeare comedy; a lot of various characters doing silly things to one another is part of the standard formula. Just relax, let the major groupings and who-loves-who sort themselves out, and just enjoy the ensuing mayhem. And nobody dies – that’s his other plays.

I must heap high praise not only upon every cast name listed above, but also Burton, who takes on various character roles on top of his other duties – he was even fixing the lights before the show.

‘CORIOLANUS’

As for “Coriolanus,” regarding the odd name, if we must get to the bottom (sorry!) of the story it is simply an unfortunate (for modern audiences, though Shakespeare did enjoy a bawdy pun) honorific bestowed on the main character, Caius Marcius (Taylor Cox) to celebrate his victory in battle at Corioli, where pre-Empire Rome defeated the rival Volscians, led by Tullus Aufidious (Ryan Ruckman).

Back in Rome, Marcius is not quiet about his elitist attitude, which doesn’t sit well with the commoners who already blame him (falsely) for a grain shortage. Fortunately, his smooth-talking friend Menenius (Matt Anderson) calms things down, but two Tribunes, Brutus and Velutus (Matt Walls and Paige Scott) observe this and stir up the citizens to oppose Coriolanus’s inevitable ascension to Consul.

Marcius himself doesn’t want the office, but his ambitious domineering mother Volumnia (Nan Macy) insists he take power, while his wife Virgilia (Abby Gilster) agrees, hoping it will keep the lifelong soldier home. But despite his friends and family insisting he stay calm, Marcius verbally explodes, giving the Tribunes the excuse to banish him.

In the second act, the exiled Coriolanus turns to his blood enemy Aufidious, who sets him in charge of the Volscian invasion of Rome. Being the era’s greatest general, Marcius practically brings troops to the gates of the capitol. Desperate to save Rome and win back his friend, Menenius tries to reason with Coriolanus. Finally, his mother, wife and son make their desperate plea. I’m not giving any further spoilers, but it all doesn’t end well.

Cox, who is proving himself to be one of the best actors in Indy, is excellent as his frustratingly complex character. You may not like this Caius Marcius Coriolanus, but you have to respect him. Davey Pelsue applies his matching talent as fellow Roman officer Titus Lartius, a dutiful soldier of inevitably conflicting loyalties. Macy’s is the top performance, a force of nature like a mother wolf who wants to be pack Alpha. You might not want her for a Mom, but you want her on your side. Anderson imbues his glib character with genuine feeling, fearful yet hopeful that his smooth tongue can cure any roughness he encounters. As for Walls and Scott, their villainous portrayal has them practically twirling old-time movie moustaches.

The other “bad guy” of the piece, Ruckman’s Aufidious, stays true to his character and principles, and carries a confident air throughout. Were the audience made of Volscians, he would be the easy hero. This adds to the many gray areas this play works in – not all virtuous win, not all villainous are punished, few are completely noble or evil – which might explain why it so rarely produced.

Unafraid, director Casey Ross gives this story a chance to show us all its complexities. The era portrayed is unspecified, the costumes mildly punk without being distracting, leaving us only with these characters and the drama that plays out among them. Occasional music is modern, but works with the timeless narrative. If you are a fan of great theatre, seeing this “Coriolanus” should be a priority.

For information and tickets to Bardfest, see http://uncannycasey.wixsite.com/bardfestindy.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: Great Dane on the Westside

By John Lyle Belden

Regarded as one of the greatest dramas of all time, if not the greatest, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” by William Shakespeare, has seen numerous stagings, including the occasional production in central Indiana.

The trick is to make a portrayal of the old familiar story something new, yet still true to the Bard. First Folio Productions and Wayne Township Community Theatre manage that quite deftly with their “Hamlet,” which has one weekend left (Friday through Sunday) at the WTCT home stage, the Ben Davis High School auditorium on Indy’s west side.

The story stays the same – Prince Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, the King, whose brother, now married to the Queen, murdered him. Hamlet then devises plans to test his uncle’s conscience, then to take his revenge, all while acting like a lunatic. People die; Hamlet cheats death on a cruise to England, then comes home to talk to a skull; then everyone dies except Hamlet’s buddy, Horatio. (If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, then by all means, go see the show!)

The twists employed by First Folio are to set the play in a steampunk circa-1900 version of Denmark, and to edit this very long drama down to two one-hour acts. (Rosencranz and Guildenstern never appear, and are not even named when it’s revealed they will die.) The latter is well executed, and aside from the omission just noted, hardly noticeable. As for the fine skirts and Edwardian suits with goggled hats and other Jules Verne chic, it is all tastefully done, creating an alternative world that is somehow timeless. As in all alternative-setting Shakespeare plays, the original language is left intact.

But the play’s the thing, as someone once said. And this play is a very good thing, with a great cast. Carey Shea holds our attention, charms and exhibits his full range as Hamlet. Devan Mathias pulls our heartstrings as tragic Ophelia. Matt Anderson is masterful as crafty King Claudius. Erika Barker portrays well the conflicted soul of Queen Gertrude. And Chris Burton steals scenes in dual roles as the “lead player” of the play-within-the-play and the busy Gravedigger.

Director Glenn L. Dobbs (kudos to him) asked me to also note there are some funny moments (and there are) in this otherwise tragic work. It is overall a truly entertaining production, to be sure.

For more information and tickets, click on “Hamlet Show Information” at www.firstfolioproductions.org.

(Also published at The Word)