Don’t ‘fiddle’ and miss this one

By John Lyle Belden

“Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is a new play by Southbank Theatre Company artistic director Marcia Eppich-Harris, but stands well in style and content with other great historical tragedies. I sense it could have been written at any time between now and the 900s, when the myth that Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” became popular. 

The premiere Southbank production of the play, at the IndyFringe Basile stage through Oct. 2, resembles a Bardfest event in its excellent handling by director Doug Powers and a cast that includes David Mosedale as Stoic philosopher Seneca and Evren Wilder Elliott as teenage “Princeps” Nero. 

Despite the abundance of written material in the First Century, much of it surviving to today, the true history of Nero is anything but clear, with contemporary accounts often written by those who didn’t like the young tyrant and centuries passing to add myth and legend to his story. The fiddle didn’t even exist at the time, but it was possible to draw a bow across a lyre, an instrument that Nero did enjoy playing — and he embraced music and theatre at a time when its practitioners were in lower regard than prostitutes (never mind an alleged god-king). Just as we don’t mind the words that Shakespeare put into the ancients’ mouths, Eppich-Harris is perfectly entitled to her well-researched dramatic license, especially as she captured the spirit of the era and its abundant lessons for today’s social and political climate. 

Seneca was Nero’s tutor when he ascended to the throne, and the boy, feeling immediately in over his head, smartly kept the philosopher on as principal advisor and speechwriter, as well as trusted military leader Afranius Burrus (David Molloy) to head his guard. Also on the scene were his ever-hovering mother Agrippina (Rachel Snyder), naive half-brother Britannicus (Brant Hughes), and dutiful but suspicious stepsister/wife Octavia (Bra’Jae’ Allen) whom he would ignore in favor of the beautiful and ambitious Sabina (Trick Blanchfield). At Seneca’s side were faithful wife Pompeia Paulina (Jenni White) and his nephew, the famous poet Lucan (Noah Winston).

Elliott brilliantly brings us along on the emperor’s journey, as he grows older and more at ease with power, but no more mature. At first troubled by signing off on the deaths of the justly condemned, Nero comes to find a quick murder is an easy solution to an immediate problem — but then more issues pop up in its place. Each death takes a little more of his soul, power-madness devolving to madness, reducing him until nearly no one is left, and the knife is in his hand.

Mosedale stands ever solid, defending his young charge as long as he can while defending himself against the hypocrisy of living large yet espousing Stoic principles. In the end, he must choose between Nero and Rome. White’s Pompeia leads the greater example, steadfast to her husband but never wavering on their moral stand. 

Snyder embodies the complex Agrippina without slipping into villainous caricature, perhaps even engendering some sympathy as the evil she sows grows out of her control. Molloy exemplifies the “good soldier” completely, bearing his orders until his sense of justice can do no more.

An exceptional look at history and the dynamics and hazards of unfettered power, “Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is worthy to stand among the Classics. We encourage all who can to see it, and to those reading this in the future to consider bringing to your own stages.

Find information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org. Note that COVID-19 vaccination and masking are required of all audience members. Home viewing via “on-demand” streaming available Oct. 15-Nov. 14 (see Southbank site for details).

Story of doomed campaign a winner for Storefront

By Wendy Carson and John Lyle Belden

Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis presents its first live production in exactly two years, the comic drama “1980 (Or, why I’m voting for John Anderson),” by Patricia Cotter, directed by Ronan Marra.

As you would surmise from the title, the year is 1980 and Kathleen (Carly Wagers) is a wide-eyed innocent come to make a difference, and earn some college credit, by working for John Anderson’s presidential campaign in Boston. At 19, she has led a sheltered life and is about to have her preconceptions – about life, politics, even herself – shattered.

Brenda (Bridget Haight), the campaign office manager (when she’s not tending bar next door), tries to teach her to face her fears and follow her passions but actually shows her how messy a blue-collar worker’s life can get when one tries to do just that.

Will (Jamaal McCray), who recently arrived from the campaign’s Chicago office, makes her aware of the racism inherent even in a city historically known as the cradle of liberty. His experiences echo incidents that we are currently facing. He also gives Kathleen a glimpse into office politics, not just the kind that involves elections.

Robin (Chelsea Anderson), however, is like the professor emeritus of the group, a blue-blood who has not only worked on past campaigns, but also knows various politicians from social events. Her jaded world outlook, psychological manipulation (masking her own mental issues), and pure ambitious nature are a force beyond anything Kathleen has ever experienced.

Also part of this play are two faces only seen on a TV that was crappy by that era’s standards. One is John B. Anderson (you need to include the middle initial when Googling, or the unrelated country music star comes up first), a moderate Republican from Illinois serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was highly intelligent, capable, and popular among fellow lawmakers, but in the 1980 Presidential primaries was quickly overshadowed by eventual nominee (and President) Ronald Reagan – the other face we see on the screen. Anderson managed the near-impossible feat of running as an Independent, getting on the ballot in every state. Still, even in badly-tinted color, Reagan’s charisma shined through to the voters.

Musing on Anderson’s long-shot chances, Brenda says, “If he can win, what’s that say about the rest of us?” In rock-solid performances, all four of our characters confront questions of what it means to “win,” and what is worth the risk. Also, reflecting what’s sometimes called politics’ “silly season,” this show is leavened with plenty of laugh-out-loud humor.

We know how the story turns out for the men on the TV debate stage (even Anderson, who passed away in 2017 after a long career in politics and public service). But this play focuses on the ones, like us, watching it all unfold, doing our small part – how does our “campaign” turn out? That’s what’s important, no matter what year it is.

Storefront Theatre is at 717 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis. Performances of “1980” run though Oct. 3. Get info and tickets at storefrontindy.com.

Star encounter opens ATI return to the stage

By John Lyle Belden

Think of your favorite singer. Imagine that person – someone whose voice spellbound you, someone you could listen to every day for the rest of your life – came to your town. Then, you found yourself talking one-on-one with that person like you’d been friends all your life. And then after joining her on stage, she came home with you for a few hours.

Impossible? For divorced working mom Louise Segar of Houston, Texas, it actually happened.

Quite a character on her own, Louise discovered country music legend Patsy Cline during the singer’s appearances on Arthur Godfrey’s morning television show in the 1950s. She quickly became Patsy’s biggest fan in Houston, constantly pestering the local country radio DJ to spin Cline’s records. When, in 1961, the star was to play a local honky-tonk, Louise made sure to arrive early. Patsy did as well, sent to travel alone by her apathetic record label. Segar’s pushy personality would come to Cline’s rescue, ensuring fair treatment by the venue’s staff and giving her a place to relax (Louise’s kitchen) after the show. She even got Patsy an impromptu interview with the radio station.

This is remembered and relived in the popular Off-Broadway musical, “Always, Patsy Cline,” by Ted Swindley, which opens the 2021-22 season for Actors Theatre of Indiana. ATI co-founders Judy Fitzgerald and Cynthia Collins portray Patsy and Louise, respetively, the former with sweetness and latter with lots of sass.

They are accompanied by an excellent on-stage ensemble of “Bobs,” musicians Nathan Perry, Matt Day, Michael Clark, Greg Gegogeine, Kathy Schilling, and Greg Wolff. The audience also gets involved a bit.

The show is directed by Bill Jenkins, with musical direction by Terry Woods, featuring a wide range of 50s-60s hits including Cline’s chart-toppers (“I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight”).

Third ATI co-founder and artistic director Don Farrell announced on opening night, “Intermission is over!” This fun and sentimental production marks a strong return to regular live theatre. Performances of “Always…” run through Oct. 3 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets and info at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

IndyFringe: We’ve Come A Long Way, Ladies!

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Audrey Johnson has brought to the Fringe a shortened version of her two-hour production highlighting the history of women’s rights and the Suffrage movement, performing on the Indy Eleven stage.

She uses both traditional songs and innovative costuming to help illustrate the various points shown in the story. Being an operatically trained Mezzo Soprano, Johnson bestows an interesting twist to these common folk songs. She also presents several unique and lesser-known songs and stories of this time, from the early 1800s to 1920.

While the show was written and intended to be toured last year on the hundredth anniversary of the ratification on the 19th Amendment (which granted women the vote), with today’s political climate and controversy over voting rights and disenfranchisement, it is still very topical.

Johnson’s “Of Thee I Sing: American Heritage Through Song” foundation tours the country bringing history through song and performance. This is a good opportunity to get a taste of one of shows. She has a very easy and engaging stage manner, and even during a momentary pause for a technical issue, took questions from the audience.

IndyFringe: Abraham Lincoln, Hoosier Hero

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

The stage has just a chair and a 36-star United States flag – and Abraham Lincoln. Yes, I know it’s actor and historical interpreter Danny Russel, but it feels like this is the closest anyone could ever come to seeing America’s 16th President in the flesh.

He puts us at ease immediately with his famous sense of humor – one can tell he grew up in Indiana from his corny jokes – and he feels a little relieved that as much as he loved theater, this venue (at the Murat Oasis) doesn’t have a balcony.

He establishes his Hoosier bona fides, noting that at age 7 he moved from Kentucky to then-wilderness Indiana, and his father placed in the already-tall boy’s hands an axe – which he said served him well. But even more useful to him were books, including his mother’s Bible, his first “library.”

This brilliant first-person history fills in so much of what we little know or long forgot about Mr. Lincoln, including what a prodigy he was, writing all the correspondence for his illiterate father at age 10, self-educating not only from his Step-Mammy Sally’s books (he had less than 300 days of formal education in his life, he said) but later from law books to become an Illinois pioneer lawyer, arguing 5,800 cases.

The jokes and humorous observations are tempered with moments of dark drama, shedding tears not only over various family members who died, but also in rage as he saw the evil of slavery first-hand on a trip to Louisiana. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong!” he declares.

Lincoln notes that he is the only lawyer to ever have the nickname, “Honest,” and elaborates on how he actually earned that sobriquet.

We learn of his courtship of Mary Todd, his many business failures, and his political career, including his famous verbal sparring with Stephen A. Douglas in the 1858 Senate race.

Things get a little more serious as he relates his tumultuous Presidency (1861-65) and the horrors of the Civil War, which would claim three percent of the U.S. population, he notes. Lincoln relates his proudest moment, when, with a tired but steady hand, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation – “My soul is in it.”

After one of the most horrific battles of the War, he is asked to speak at the dedication of a cemetery for the fallen. After the era’s greatest orator holds forth for over two hours, Mr. Lincoln steps up on that Gettysburg platform to say just a few words…

Please don’t miss your opportunity to see arguably our greatest President, live and in person.

IndyFringe: Radium Girls

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In the 1920s, there was huge demand for items with glow-in-the-dark numbers and letters from paint that contained radium, recently discovered and believed by many to be perfectly harmless — maybe even beneficial, as it was used to treat cancer. This meant plenty of high-paying jobs for young women suited to the delicate work of applying the paint. To get a precise point, they were told to put the brush tip to their lips.

But eventually, mysteriously, their jaws began to hurt…

Christian Youth Theater presents “Radium Girls,” based on the true story of these women’s battle with the U.S. Radium Corporation to get it to admit to the dangers of the deadly substance they worked with, and to set things right. Many wouldn’t live to see justice. 

As we meet these “girls,” they talk of a coworker who had passed away. The obfuscation by the company is already in effect, with a rumor the deceased had syphilis, and having their own illnesses attributed to exposure to phosphorus in matches, or from bad nutrition. One of the women, Grace Fryer, leaves the company with plans to start a family, but her persistent illnesses are only getting worse. Fortunately, she finds help in arguing her case, presented both before a judge and, more importantly, the court of public opinion. 

Seeing this portrayed by a cast of talented teenagers brings to mind how young the actual victims were — not much older than the actors — as through effective makeup we see their fresh faces go sallow as their characters’ bodies fall apart. The script by D.W. Gregory pulls no punches: we see the lengths the company goes to put off its reckoning; the temptations of the women, dying and deep in debt, to take a small settlement; and the reactions of strangers that range from authentic sympathy to cold exploitation.

I don’t have a cast list, so I’ll just applaud an excellent ensemble, members of which we will likely see more of in seasons to come. But the important people are the ones they represent, real people in an American scandal and tragedy we should never forget. Performances are in the Basle auditorium at the Athenaeum. 

Agape kids return “Sound of Music”

By John Lyle Belden

Even when one of your musical’s biggest songs is, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” who expects to have to scale the peak of a global pandemic?

Agape Performing Arts Company (to which I’ve given much praise in the past), a youth theatre program hosted by Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, bravely opened its production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” in March of 2020, only to immediately close.

Because COVID-19, which shut the whole world down.

But director Kathy Phipps and the cast and crew kept following that dream of telling the beloved story of the Von Trapps. With the lineup largely intact, they perform a one-weekend engagement at the Basile Theatre in the Athenaeum downtown, in the heart of Indy’s again-bustling Mass Ave arts-entertainment-dining-etc. district.

Remaining live performances, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. today and Sunday (June 5-6), are sold out, but Sunday’s shows are available livestreamed at agapeshows.org.

The quality of the child/tween/teen performances is top-notch, as usual, with the bonus that the Von Trapp children actors are very near their characters’ stated ages. Liesl IS “Sixteen, going on Seventeen.” Agape wisely chose to keep college-student Elise Scrogham as the principal Maria, who anchored a solid ensemble Friday night.

To maximize the experience for all young actors, many roles are understudied and double-cast, with the alternate players taking the stage at different performances. Maria is also played by Meghan Wombles. Others include Elijah Beasley and Grant Scott-Miller as Captain Von Trapp, Rebekah Barajas and Silvia Seidle as Liesl, Devyn Knauss and Jackson Steuer as Friedrich, Josee DeBoor and Maggie McKinney as Louisa, Tobin Seiple as Kurt (God bless him), Evelyn Skaggs and Marygrace Rykowski as Brigitta, Adilyn Walker and Regina Kalscheur as Marta, Kesslee DeBoor and Victoria Franklin as Gretl, Olivia Schemmel and Jocelyne Brake as the wise Mother Abbess, and Clayton Muchman understudies Scott-Miller as collaborator Baron von Elberfeld.

Caleb Wilson fits right in as a late casting addition as Franz, the butler. Virginia Sever is the housekeeper, Frau Schmidt. Maura Phipps makes Frau Schraeder (the Captain’s wealthy momentary fiance) likable, and even noble in her final gesture. Aidan Morris, on the other hand, maintains a sinister air around messenger-boy Rolf that only Liesl apparently doesn’t see. The large and harmonious chorus of Sisters of the Abbey are led by Brilynn Knauss (Berthe), Kat Seiple (Margaretta) and Gemma Rollison (Sophia). And we look forward to the energetic Nathan Ellenberger, here as conniving Max Detweiler, chewing up scenes for many shows to come.

You likely know this story (and many songs) by heart. But if you don’t, here’s the pitch: It’s an old-school story of the original Antifa. With music. And children. And nuns. Who sing, even if they’re not supposed to. If you are only familiar with the classic Oscar-winning Julie Andrews film, note that the popular tunes are not in the same order or context, and there are a couple more songs. But “Edelweiss” will still touch your heart.

Even in a volunteer organization, keeping the rights to a legendary show for a dark year aren’t cheap. Please consider buying some swag, making a donation, and making a point of seeing Agape’s future productions, including a one-act “Narnia” at this August’s IndyFringe, and their staging of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” during BardFest in the fall.

IRT’s ‘Cyrano’: The power of ‘words of love’

By John Lyle Belden

It is wonderful to see a well-staged production of a timeless story, but in five acts? Fortunately, the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s “Cyrano” uses the adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Jo Roets, which slims the story down to its essence, an elegant economy of words that would impress the titular legendary French noble.

“Have him write to me,” Roxane (Melisa Pereyra, right) says to Cyrano de Bergerac (Ryan Artzberger) in the Indiana Repertory Theatre production of “Cyrano,” also starring Jeb Burris, viewable online through May 9 (Photo by Zach Rosing)

In fact, one of the original play’s most famous scenes – Act 1, Scene 1.IV, in which Cyrano cleverly comes up with every possible insult for his famously large nose – is related by the actors at the very beginning, to set the scene. That this is a man of incredible wit and passion, yet sensitive about his appearance, is foremost; that the story takes place in mid-1600s France is incidental.

Cyrano, leader of the noble Cadets that serve with the French Army, is renowned for his dueling prowess as well as his poetry, but while he can defend his heart from a blade, he aches for his cousin (distant in family, close in relationship) Roxane. As he considers confessing his love for her, she tells of her love for the handsome Christian, a new Cadet that she wishes Cyrano to take under his protection. This is not her only concern: The tedious Count de Guiche (Cyrano’s commander) wishes to marry Roxane himself.

While remembering his promise to not fillet Christian for mocking his schnozz, Cyrano hears the young man say that he, too, is in love with Roxane, but is at a loss with “words of love.” Thus comes the plan for the noble poet’s words in letters delivered in the handsome Cadet’s name. The plan is endangered, however, when she wishes to hear Christian woo her in person, resulting in likely the second most famous balcony scene in all of theatre.

Ryan Artzberger is Cyrano; the IRT regular slips into the role as he has done so many others, with all the heart-on-sleeve panache he can muster. Melisa Pereyra is also sharp as Roxane, strong-willed and clever, a heroine in her own right. Jeb Burris takes on nearly all other roles, notably Christian and de Guiche – nimbly transforming between the very different rivals, in voice and manner as well as costume, helping us to love the former and detest the latter.

Direction is handled by the IRT’s Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director – essentially, the boss – Janet Allen. Burris choreographed the swordplay. A simple but effective stage is designed by Russell Metheney, and costumes are by Linda Pisano.

Also notable is Cyrano’s prosthetic nose, by Becky Scott. It is imposing and hawkish, much like on the portrait of the historical figure on whom the play is based, and not an absurdly exaggerated ski-slope like one often sees.

With an approximately 90-minute run time, this exciting and endearing drama would be an excellent alternative to streaming an old movie (or most new ones). The play was recorded by WFYI Public Television and can be viewed at irtlivevirtual.com through May 9.

Past pain reflects present in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “No. 6,” presented by Indiana Repertory Theatre, is set in an early-21st-century American city where a white police officer has killed a black man, and violent responses to apparent injustice ensue.

Doesn’t narrow it down much, does it?

That’s the problem, and that’s why the IRT chose this play by T.J. Young, inspired by this repeating narrative, centered on the April 2001 riots in Cincinnati. A fully-produced stage performance, directed by Dwandra Nickole Lampkin, was captured by public television station WFYI and is available to stream at irtlive.com through April 4.

The steady progress of unrest has finally reached the storefront of the Anderson family’s laundry/cleaners, while proprietor Ella (Milicent Wright), with teen twins Felix (Jamaal McCray) and Felicia (LaKesha Lorene), shelter in the upstairs apartment. Felicia, who is on the autistic spectrum, dwells on her dinosaur obsession while Felix is out on the streets, scavenging for food from what past looters left behind. But he comes back with more than Spam – dragging in an unconscious white man.

Our mysterious houseguest (Michael Stewart Allen) has booze on his breath and a gun in his backpack, but as the others discover who he is, they find themselves in the very heart of the city’s issues.

Wright is a rock, as always, the mother-hen and conscience of this play. She has reasons behind her righteousness and shows real pain with her perspective that makes her feel genuine, not just a means to the drama’s message. McCray plays an emotional, impulsive idealist – like a teenager – but also reflecting the open spirit of his martyred father. Lorene gives a sensitive, endearing portrayal of an unconventional genius who has an uncanny grasp of the big picture at work here – big, as in global.

Allen hits all the emotional buttons as a man finding himself in a sort of Purgatory, never completely likable nor hateable. He is forced to deal with the perspective of those not like himself, while we must also acknowledge his. Still, what can one do when he is literally part of the problem?

“People across the globe take to streets and cry, ‘Never again!’” Young says in his program note. “And then it happens again. And again. And again.”

This play is important because it continues the much-needed conversation – but also see it because it is gripping drama with solid human performances, punctuated by sound (credit Matthew Tibbs) and light (Xavier Pierce) that makes the danger feel real and immediate, even in an otherwise comforting home (scene: Rob Koharchik). Support local professional theatre, and boot it up on the big screen.

Historical heroes share power of friendship in ‘Agitators’

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting bit of American history is that two of the most influential civil rights figures of the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, were also close friends. That relationship is explored in “The Agitators,” by Mat Smart, now at the Phoenix Theatre.

Douglass (played by Jerome Beck) was a former slave who spoke out on the evils of that institution. He meets Anthony (Lauren Briggeman) through her activist Quaker father. The initial meeting is a little rough, but Douglass tells her, “I am your friend.” “Though I put you off?” Anthony replies. “It is a trait I most admire in a friend,” he responds.

Indeed, the play’s title is not only apt, but embraced. “Agitate, agitate, agitate!” Douglass advises. And they do, both to end slavery and to secure equal rights for women. At first it is abolition that is the cause. They host a stop on the Underground Railroad, making beds with books — the seeds of knowledge denied to slaves — as pillows. They approach the oncoming war with hope and worry for the nation’s future. Then, in Reconstruction, the spectre of compromise raises up as it appears that black men will receive the vote ahead of women.

These two share a deep friendship, and fiery yet eloquent arguments — “Don’t quote me to me!” — but never stay apart long, standing steadfast for each other. Beck and Briggeman portray these very human heroes with excellence, helping us to feel their ongoing struggles against society, injustice, politics, and occasionally each other. Though it is just these two we see, the Phoenix mainstage is barely big enough to contain them, on a creative stage design by Inseung Park, with lighting by Zac Hunter. Mikael Burke, who also captained the IRT’s “Watson’s Go To Birmingham,” directs.

As Black History Month has given way to Women’s History Month, we still have so much to learn of both. As Douglass implores at a critical moment in the play, “Look at what is before you, and see what I see.” 

Performances of “The Agitators” run through March 22 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Free tickets for students are available. Call 317-635-7529 or visit PhoenixTheatre.org.