What’s so funny about peace, love and misunderstanding?

By John Lyle Belden

Anton Chekhov called his 1895 play, “The Seagull,” a “comedy in four acts” – which makes one wonder about Russians’ sense of humor.

But the play, adapted and directed by Casey Ross and presented by her Catalyst Repertory company – shaved down to two acts (one-two / intermission / three-four) – does have some light moments. Good drama always has its share of humor, and its “comic” elements are further reflected in an almost Shakespearean level of unrequited love among the characters.

The setting is a peaceful rural Russian estate, with its nice house belonging to aging civil servant Pyotr Sorin (Dennis Forkel) and a lake, near which his nephew Konstantin Treplev (Taylor Cox) presents a play he has written, starring his girlfriend, local girl Nina (Ann Marie Elliott).

Treplev sees himself in the shadow of his famous actress mother, Irina Arkadina (Nan Macy), and her popular friends. “I have no discernible talent,” he laments. But to prove himself, he is determined to write a “new form” of theatre, simultaneously rebelling against and surpassing the great Arkadina. Before an audience of locals, family and his mother’s guest, famous writer Boris Trigorn (Thomas Cardwell), the premiere flounders thanks to Treplev’s abstract symbolism – inspiring heckling from Arkadina – and Nina’s amateurish acting.

Later Trigorn flatters Nina, encouraging her dream of becoming a professional actor, and winning her away from Treplev. Meanwhile, beautiful-in-black Masha (Emily Bohn) is in love with Treplev, while poor schoolmaster Medivenko (Bradford Reilly) is in love with Masha. Paulina (Kyrsten Lyster) is in an affair with Yevgeny Dorn (Craig Kemp), a kindly doctor with a song in his heart, but she is married to very unromantic estate caretaker Ilya Shamrayeff (Anthony Nathan).

While good acting is essential to any play, the presentation of these characters is all Chekhov has given us – no wild action or deep mystery. Fortunately, Ross knows some very talented actors.

Cox is great at playing the tortured soul, and he has plenty to work with here. A hundred-twenty years later, even in Russia, Treplev would have medication and perhaps a therapist to aid his issues. In this world, he must wade through on his own with little help from his mother – she brushes off his suicide attempt as a silly phase, afraid to leave the limelight world that is the only place she feels happy. Macy turns on the charm, while showing the depth of her character’s shallowness.

Elliott is brilliant as usual, mastering not only all the subtle facets of Nina, but managing to act “bad” in an entertaining way. Cardwell reveals a man wrestling with the life his genius has given him – “I have no rest from myself” – but still subject to base desires. In one of the play’s most famous scenes, he presents the idea of “destroying” the young woman, saying it directly to her. But blinded by her pursuit of fame, Nina allows it to happen, not realizing until it is too late what she has become.

And a shout out to Nathan for nearly stealing scenes with Shamreyeff’s socially clumsy moments, and for making the death of the title bird more funny than it should be.

So: When you get what you’ve been chasing after – or what you settled for – is it worth it? That would be the thematic question at work here, and while the answers aren’t definitive, they do feel honest to the harsh world we live in, wherever we are in time or on the globe. And when the circumstances permit, we can get in a laugh or two.

“The Seagull” has performances Sept. 15-17 and 22-24 at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. For info and tickets, visit Facebook.com/CatalystRepertory or the company’s website.

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Paige Scott and EclecticPond boldly bringing Bronte to today’s audience

By John Lyle Belden

EclecticPond Theatre Company brushes off a dusty classic with “J. Eyre,” bringing new life to Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel “Jane Eyre” as a contemporary musical.

The style is modern, but the English countryside setting of this gothic romance remains. The actors’ clothes evoke the period rather than copy it. In fact, the style of this production – through July 30 at Grove Haus near Indy’s Fountain Square – focuses primarily on the story of relationships and the people swept up in them.

The seven actors never leave the stage, with all providing narration, singularly or in harmony, throughout. Two of them each portray a single role, Devan Mathias as Jane and Tim Hunt as Edward Rochester, while the others – Miranda Nehrig, Mary Margaret Montgomery, Abby Gilster, Chelsea Leis and Carrie Neal – chameleon from one supporting character to another.

Written and directed by Paige Scott, the musical’s story largely follows the book: Orphan Jane endures a wretched childhood, including abuse at the hands of her aunt and cousin, and the death of her only school friend (Montgomery) in a typhus outbreak. She then takes a job as governess for a girl in the care of crude, spoiled playboy Rochester. But Jane falls in love with him – realizing her feelings as he prepares to marry gold-digger Blanche (Nehrig) – and when it looks like she will finally find happiness, she finds out his terrible secret. (In case you didn’t read or don’t remember the novel from your literature classes, I’ll leave it there.)

The sung narrative interludes between scenes aid the flow of the story without interrupting it, and relieves one of the need to have read it beforehand to understand its events. Scott’s songs feel like they’ve always been a part of this classic, rather than freshly written. Her captivating adaptation of the novel suggests the script for an autumn Oscar-bait movie. Add in excellent performances by the cast and keyboard accompanist Jacob Stensberg, and this is the kind of show that, if presented Off-Broadway, would soon find itself under the big lights.

You can find “J. Eyre” at 1001 Hosbrook Street; and tickets and info at eclecticpond.org.

Catalyst’s ‘Tooth’ gives us much to chew on

By John Lyle Belden

When you enter the Grove Haus theater to experience “Tooth of Crime,” presented by Catalyst Repertory, you enter another world.

It’s a dystopian potential America of the 2080s, a Mad-Max atmosphere in which the battles aren’t over oil but fame – and your place on the rock ‘n’ roll charts. Those on top find themselves “marked,” with life and death consequences.

Hoss (Davey Pelsue) is an aging Marker at the top of The Game. He respects the Code, as well as the country and blues musicians that inform his down-and-dirty rock style. He doesn’t test the wrath of the Keepers, but is not too happy that other performers are bending the rules, especially Gypsies who don’t abide by the Code at all.

Vexed and paranoid, Hoss fires his stargazer, Mirra (Ryan Powell), for advising him to be cautious. A Deejay, Rudio Ran (Jay Hemphill), reassures him he’s still on top, but he suspects it’s flattery. His manager and girlfriend, Becky Lou (Sarah Hoffman) is worried, and the drugs Doc (Nan Macy) give him make him even more unmanageable. Then, right-hand man Chaser (Zach Stonerock) informs Hoss that a rival has marked him, and a Gypsy by the name of Crow (Adam Tran) is on his way to do battle. Chaser finds an impartial Ref (David Molloy) to adjudicate.

The culture of this play has its own dialect – though after a while you can “suss” it out – and the duel is mainly psychic, through words spoken and sung. Though they brandish guns and knives, Hoss and Crow strive to break each other’s mind and soul before fatally attacking the body.

For the audience, this requires paying close attention as much as possible, but not getting too concerned that you can’t tell exactly what’s said or even going on. This drama with music was written by Sam Shepard in 1972 and rewritten in 1997, which helps explain its vibe being somewhere between “Easy Rider” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” filtered through Greek tragedy.

This show isn’t for everyone, but if you go with it, you can witness a stylish indictment of the corrosive nature of celebrity, and experience the passion that Pelsue and his castmates put into their performance. Hoss practically sweats every word and lyric he utters. Crow is like a preening bird, but with a dangerous edge even when knocked off-balance.

An on-stage band provides excellent accompaniment to the show’s proceedings. The music was provided by Shepard, with additions by T Bone Burnett in the 1990s, and director Casey Ross found a more recent hit to finish the play.

Performances are Fridays through Sundays through Feb. 26 at 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. Get info and tickets at uncannycasey.wix.com/catalystrepertory.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: Ecce ‘Equus’

By John Lyle Belden

The Peter Shaffer play “Equus” is famous for not only its dark subject matter (intertwining themes of bestiality and religion, horse mutilations, etc.) but also for its nudity.

But in the Casey Ross production playing through July 24 at the Grove Haus, though there is a scene with characters fully naked, more striking are the souls laid bare in this drama. Never going beyond loosening his tie, Dr. Dysart (Brian G. Hartz) finds his profession of psychiatry, his personal relationships, and his very life raw and exposed to the audience as well as the probings of his own mind. Frank Strang (Doug Powers), father to disturbed teen Alan (Taylor Cox), tightly bound in vested suit and his own convictions, finds himself exposed and convicted in his son’s eyes. Alan’s mother Dora (Ericka Barker) finds her faith shaken and her own facade sliding away. And young Jill (Sarah McGrath), fascinated by the sight of bare skin, exposes herself to Alan completely, never suspecting the devastation that would follow.

As for Cox, who has admitted to struggling with his role as a boy who comes to deify horses, confusing religious and sexual ecstacy, his dedication to conveying Alan’s pain to the audience – which are seated around the central stage area, the front row inches from the action – has paid off immensely. You can’t help but feel empathy for the plight of Alan, the people in contact with him, and even the steeds he adores, then hurts when his passioned delusion turns violent. Hartz provides a brilliant counterpoint with his compassionate yet driven Dysart.

Excellent support is provided by other members of the cast: Allison Clark Reddick as magistrate Hester Solomon, Tony Armstrong as stablemaster Dalton, Nan Macy as the Nurse, and the horses played by Bowie Foote, Christopher Bell, Beth Clark and Johnny Mullens as Nugget, Alan’s favorite. Ross, who directs with the assistance of David Mosedale, provides an excellent minimalist stage design, and kudos to Davey Pelsue for composing the haunting original score.

Shaffer wrote the play after being inspired by a brief news story of a 17-year-old blinding six horses with a sharpened tool. With this fact, he spun a fictional drama that strikes at the truth of faith and devotion, and our definitions of sanity and normalcy. I couldn’t help but notice that when Alan has nightmares of his equestrian gods judging him, he cries out “Eck!” which is revealed to be the obvious, “Equus,” the word for his godhead and savior. Still, it echoes to me of “Ecce Homo” – “Behold the Man,” Latin for the words of Pilate presenting a broken Jesus to the public.

In “Equus,” we are presented with a broken boy, exposing the cracks in everyone around him until all are shattered. It is truly something to behold.

Find the Grove Haus at 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square just southeast of downtown Indy. Find info and tickets at http://uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions or the Casey Ross Productions Facebook page.

Also posted at The Word.

Review: ‘Lobby Channel’ something to see

CRP Lobby Channel

By John Lyle Belden

Casey Ross Productions’ latest show is a perfect conversation starter for this age in which humanity has never been so connected, yet individuals still find themselves so lonely.

In “Lobby Channel,” a new musical written and directed by Ross’s friend (and local actress) Paige Scott, based on a story once told on NPR’s “This American Life,” a pair of morning radio jocks are trading insults as usual when one tells of something extraordinary – his home VCR managed to pull from the cable system a closed-circuit feed from an unfamiliar building somewhere in the city.

With only one view and no sound, Ted (Bradford Reilly) watches an empty hallway for hours, waiting for the brief appearances of a beautiful woman in a pillbox hat. She approaches, alone, often dropping her keys as she reaches her door, and hours later she departs for destinations unknown.

As the story unfolds, the woman in the black dress and hat (Miranda Nehrig) appears, ghost-like, expressing Ted’s wonder at who she could be. His partner Brian (Evan Wallace), unsure what to think of his story, throws another barb at Ted, saying the woman must be a stripper. In response, her next song takes a seductive turn, almost too much for Ted to bear.

Is Ted a sort of stalker? Is this the beginning of an unconventional love story? The play concludes in a logical manner, but still leaves those questions hanging for us to wonder – as good theatre should.

Reilly ably expresses the frustration of someone trapped in an incomplete puzzle, unsure of what to do with the pieces he has been given. Wallace easily portrays the friend who gives you a hard time, but still has your back. And Nehrig’s beauty and voice are a perfect fit for our mystery woman. Scott’s haunting music and lyrics suit the mood perfectly, providing the right tension to hold this simple-yet-complex story together.

It’s one act, clocking in at just under an hour, yet this show packs a lot into its frame. It echoes both a time not long ago when personal privacy was a sacred thing and today with social media like open books that we all show each other. We all get to know perfect strangers, imperfectly. Do you really understand this person, or are you only watching their “Lobby Channel”?

The musical’s performances are Friday through Sunday, through May 22, at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook Ave. near Indy’s Fountain Square. See uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions/ or Casey Ross Productions on Facebook for info and tickets.

Review: Casey Ross Productions’ “Stoops” conquers

Cast of Casey Ross Productions' "She Stoops to Conquer," Friday, June 19, 2015 -- photo by John Belden
Cast of Casey Ross Productions’ “She Stoops to Conquer,” Friday, June 19, 2015 — photo by John Belden

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

It’s too easy to call the Grove Haus, the funky former church building in Indy’s Fountain Square district where Casey Ross puts on her plays, the “Groove House” – because Miss “Uncanny Casey” is so, well, groovy.

And speaking of mildly-outdated but still appropriate words, Ross takes the 1700s Oliver Goldsmith comedy “She Stoops to Conquer” and gives it a groovalicious update.

Like the 18th century, the 1980s were a time of big hair, regretful fashion and wacky music. In the meantime, Florida has become synonymous with rednecks, stupidity and all manner of bizarre behavior. Add these two elements to the script of the classic and slightly bawdy play and you have CRP’s latest entertaining diversion. The tale of arranged marriages (including one between two cousins), mistaken identities, besotted or scheming individuals, and overall confusion meshes well with the chosen setting.

Dick and Dorothy Hardcastle (David Malloy and Ross) own both a home and a motel, sufficiently tacky that one can’t tell one from the other. Dick wants charming daughter Kate (Ann Marie Elloitt) to check out his old friend’s son Marlow (Max Jones), whom they haven’t met, as a potential husband; while Dorothy wants her drunken slacker son Tony (Taylor Cox) to marry his cousin (and Kate’s bestie) Constance (Veronica Orech) to better secure their property, especially the precious jewels that Constance inherited and Dorothy is holding onto as dowry.

Marlow arrives with best friend Hastings (Tyler Gordon), who has cultivated a romance with Constance. From here on, the plot gets twisty, as Tony pranks Marlow into thinking the Hardcastle home is the motel, so the young suitor treats Dick like the hired help and pines for Kate, thinking she is a just a maid and not the lady he was supposed to meet – the girl, in turn, plays along for comic situations that would do the Bard proud. Meanwhile, Hastings and Constance conspire to run away to marry, enlisting Tony’s help in getting the valuable jewels. Everything goes wrong, and, this being a comedy, everything goes right in the end.

The play not only makes use of the small stage at the head of the house, but also the central floor area, with actors occasionally sitting with and talking directly to the audience. This intimate staging not only helps us connect with the action, but also precludes the need for sticking microphones to the actors. This is a refreshing change from most Indy-area community theatre. However, in this environment, enunciation and vocal projection are more critical, and any failings are more noticeable. Opening night only had a few unclear lines, which no doubt have been worked on during this intervening week, and the story was easy to follow.

The stage set is appropriately tacky, with a couple of in-joke posters, and Ross’s sound design includes a lot of snippets of ’80s hits, keeping the mood light and fun.

Under the direction of partner “Fedora Dave” Matthews, Ross makes a welcome return to the boards, exuding gleeful maternal malevolence under a burgundy wig. Elliott is 100 percent pure-cane sweetness; Cox does slackerdom proud; Gordon is suave and valiant; Orech is comically sharp; and Molloy is fun as the blustering patriarch. Also notable is John Garlick, who comes in late in the play as Marlow’s father. Jones does great at his complex character, having to come off as naive, shy and buffoonish, but then win us over as the romantic hero at the end (Elliott-as-Kate’s kind, forgiving nature helps).

The setting doesn’t translate 100 percent, but is close enough when one considers Southern society can be at least as idiosyncratic as Olde England. One reference to pounds instead of dollars sounds out of place, but can be forgiven.

The show has one more weekend, Friday through Sunday at 1001 Hosbrook St. Tickets are $15. Get info at facebook.com/caseyrossproductions and go get your groove on.