Bard Fest play catches the conscience of the Queen

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting thing I find in TV talk shows is the stories of celebrities who meet other celebrities, not as coworkers or equals, but as mutual fans, starstruck at each other. Imagine if the most powerful woman in the world were to meet an actor whose performance she found to be exceptional. It happened, and William Shakespeare was there to see it.

“Elizabeth Rex” is perhaps the greatest play Shakespeare could not have made, as the title character could easily have had his head removed to decorate the Tower of London. So it was left to acclaimed playwright Timothy Findley in 2000 to speculate and dramatize what happened on a fateful night in 1601 following a command performance – by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I – of the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” 

You don’t have to know anything about that comedy to enjoy the Bard Fest adaptation of “Elizabeth Rex,” just know that in Shakespeare’s day, all women’s roles were played by male actors, and the rest of this drama’s set-up you can get from context. The setting is a barn at the estate where the play’s after-party (for aristocrats, not lowly actors) is being held, with everyone being stuck indoors as a curfew was declared by the Queen to maintain the peace before the Ash Wednesday execution at dawn of Robert, Earl of Essex – believed to be Elizabeth’s lover, but convicted of treason. 

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men grumble about their surroundings as they remove their makeup and tap a keg of warm ale, but the mood totally changes when their Royal visitor arrives. She is regal, the others reverent, but eventually all relax. “I shall require distraction,” Elizabeth declares.

The Queen (Holly Hathaway Thmpson) is quite impressed with the men who played female leads, especially Ned Lowenscroft (Jay C. Hemphill), the play’s Beatrice, and Harry Pearle (Scott Fleshood), who played Hero. She even remembers when Percy Gower (Alan Cloe) would show some leg in his skirts in years past (the old actor loves to reminisce, a recurring comic point). To Jack Edmond (Matthew Walls) who played Benedick (who verbally sparred with/wooed Beatrice in “Much Ado”), Elizabeth shows disdain, perhaps conflating the actor with the role, resenting his being Irish, or both. She also isn’t thrilled with big-mouthed Luddy (Matthew Socey) who she sees as little more than a living version of Falstaff (a great Bard Fest in-joke for those who have seen Socey in that role). Also on hand is Matt Welles (Anthony Logan), who is handy with a guitar; nearly blind seamstress Tardy (Susan Yeaw), always losing her glasses to comic effect; and a bear, which Lowenscroft had rescued.

Quite literally above it all, at his desk in the loft, is Shakespeare (Eric Bryant), working on his next play, “Antony and Cleopatra.” He feels at a loss for what words to put in legendary rulers’ mouths, so makes notes of things the Queen says. This proves problematic when she insists on seeing the script.

Attending Her Majesty are Lady Mary Stanley (Nikki Lynch) and Lord Robert Cecil (Abdul Hakim Shabazz). An attentive soldier enforcing the curfew (Andy Burnett) also appears, as well as, briefly, Countess Henslow (Afton Shepard) to plead in vain for the condemned’s life.

Much of this drama comes down to the interplay between Elizabeth and Lowenscroft, who, because he is dying, exercises a bit of license with the Queen. For her part, resolved to spend the night on the level of her subjects in the barn, she accepts being chided and contradicted – even touched – as the gay actor teaches the monarch, ever required to show a manly demeanor, to get in touch with her woman within. Thus, even in a very talented cast, Hemphill and Thompson stand out with extraordinary performances. 

Glenn L. Dobbs, a Bard Fest producer, directs from a script he adapted with Barbara Willis Sweete and Kate Miles. 

As has been noted, this at times intense drama is peppered with some great laugh-out-loud moments. It also gives a sense of what an important time this was in Elizabeth’s reign. The hour chimes periodically, bringing our players closer to the dawn, when our fantasia ends and true history resumes.

Remaining dates are Friday through Sunday, Nov. 12-14, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com and www.artsforlawrence.org

ATI’s ‘Lombardi’ victorious

By John Lyle Belden

Whenever we hear or see Vincent Lombardi in a picture or old game film, or read or hear one of his numerous quotes, he seems larger than life, football’s Zeus or Apollo. But he was a man – and a devoted Catholic, so claiming no godhood – and as we see his very human aspects in “Lombardi,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana, we can’t help but respect him even more.

The Broadway play by Eric Simonson, from the book “When Pride Still Mattered” by David Maraniss, captures a week in the Green Bay Packers’ 1965 season. Look magazine sends reporter Michael McCormick (played by Adam LaSalle) to Wisconsin to write a profile on the coach, who never had a losing season in the NFL (up to that point, or thereafter). Aside from Lombardi (Don Farrell) and his wife Marie (Judy Fitzgerald), we meet Packers greats Dave Robinson (Joel Ashur), Paul Hornung (Christian Condra) and Jim Taylor (Mat Leonard), who all refuse – at first – to speak to the reporter.

Without any special makeup tricks, perhaps through force of will, Farrell becomes Lombardi – in face, stance, voice, and attitude. When he speaks, always at or above a shout, all must listen. His style as coach and general manager was uncompromising, but in his subtle, paternal way his compassion for both the game and its players comes through. And as he would bellow at his wife, Fitzgerald’s Marie would always give as good as she got, with a knowing grin on her face and drink in her hand. Their scenes include flashbacks, showing how they made their way to Green Bay (including the road atlas).

McCormick is an able narrator; being a character from the non-football world aids his role as audience proxy. Ashur, Condra and Leonard also give strong performances, worthy of working under a legendary coach.

Jane Unger, who last gave us another bit of history in “Alabama Story,” directs. Efficient stage design by P. Bernard Killian seems to expand the limited space of the Studio Theater, hinting at grand scale within an intimate setting.

An inspiring look at an American icon, “Lombardi” runs through Nov. 21 at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Following the Sunday, Nov. 7, performance, former Purdue star and Colts quarterback Mark Herrmann will join the cast for a talkback.

Get info and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Bard Fest: Tragic Egyptian queen still fascinating

By John Lyle Belden

Indy Bard Fest presents the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company production of “Antony and Cleopatra” – which, though I know that’s the way Shakespeare titled it, should give the doomed last Queen of Egypt first billing.

Already an incredible talent, Afton Shepard throws herself fully into her title role, portraying Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” of moods and mental states. But under her demeanor, ranging from stormy to sultry, burns a fierce intelligence. All this and more Mark Antony, well-portrayed by Darin Richart, sees, and dedicates himself to as they rule the Eastern third of the Roman Empire. But confict with fellow triumvir Caesar (the eventual Augustus, played by Thomas Sebald) is inevetable.

This production, directed by Ryan T. Shelton, pares down the cast and puts the focus more squarely on Cleopatra. Having ruled since she was a teen – and still showing fits of immaturity – she is also well traveled and educated. She knows a woman’s typical place in this world (much like ours, in a way) and is not afraid to use seductive charms to camoflauge her true wisdom.

Many characters are placed on the weary shoulders of Craig Kemp, who enters as the Soothsayer and appears as various messengers and soldiers as the story demands. The excellent cast includes Bobbi Bye as Caesar’s advisor Agrippa, Dana Lesh and Barb Weaver as Cleopatra’s servants Charmian and Iras, Duane Leatherman as third triumvir Lepidus, Jamie Devine as Caesar’s sister Octavia, Becca Bartley as Cleopatra’s guard Alexas, and Jet Terry as Antony’s faithful soldier Scarus. Kevin Caraher gets a meaty role in Enorbarbus, steadfast for Antony up to the point that he sees history turning and fearing himself on the wrong side, “when valor preys on reason.”

Gender-blind casting is nothing new in today’s theatre, but I liked that Caesar’s soldier Dolabella, played by Evangeline Bouw, seems to lend an element of feminine empathy in being the last Roman to guard Cleopatra at the end.

Scholars debate the fine points of even the original historical sources, but this powerful play gives a good sense of the era and the essence of the larger than life persons in it. We feel we have met Cleopatra and Antony, and it’s an honor.

Performances are Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 28, 30, 31) at The Cat Theater, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

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.