‘Yank!’ — A different kind of bravery

By John Lyle Belden

Emotions run high during war — excitement, anger, patriotic fervor, devotion, and love. For some soldiers thrown into the crucible that was World War II, the ones they wanted to embrace with all their might weren’t the pin-up girls.

This is the world of “Yank!” the musical making its Indianapolis premiere at the District Theatre.

Stuart (Jonathan Krouse) answered the call to join the fight against Hitler and Tojo, but first he has to fit in with Charlie Company. He can barely hold a rifle, and he’s not sure about his feelings towards his fellow soldiers, especially Mitch (Tanner Brunson), the only one to treat him with kindness. The others suspect he’s different, and even call him “Light-Loafers,” but they come to accept him, because “your squad is your squad.”

On the way to the front, two things happen: Stuart and Mitch start to explore their feelings for each other, and Stuart meets Artie (D. Scott Robinson), a photographer for Yank! magazine, wise to and willing part of the gay underground just outside the U.S. Army’s notice. While Charlie Company goes to combat, Stuart — an aspiring writer, keeping a detailed journal — joins Artie as reporters behind the lines.

Stu is doing well out of harm’s way, but he still has feelings for Mitch. Then he gets the assignment to write about his old unit, and how war has changed them. More changes are coming for Stu, and he will discover how war is especially hell for a gay soldier — facing danger from his own people as well as the enemy.

The cast includes Isaac Becker, Dominic Piedmonte, Scott Fleshood, Joshua Cox and Bryant Mehay as fellow soldiers. Jerry Beasley, Lance Gray and Kevin Bell play hardened officers and NCOs, as well as somewhat softer characters. Jessica Hawkins wonderfully portrays “every woman,” from radio entertainers to a lesbian WAC working for Gen. MacArthur.  

Krouse and Brunson turn in wonderful performances, one constantly feeling deeply, the other deeply conflicted. The supporting cast is solid; Beasley earns his stripes. And with us usually seeing Robinson these days behind the scenes as producer or director, it’s good to see him show his excellence as an actor.

This is a different kind of love story, but still touching — love is love, after all — and an eye-opening look at a hidden part of our history. While the characters are fictional, there was a Yank! Magazine, and playwright David Zellnik thoroughly researched the secret lives of gay soldiers and sailors of the era.

The songs, by David and his brother Joseph Zellnik, are snappy and sentimental in a style befitting the 1940s setting, including some interesting harmony.

Had this been a boy-meets-girl rather than boy-meets-boy, “Yank!” would look like the cinema hit of 1945. But it’s 2019, and LGBTQ GIs are only now living out of the closet. Thus, this show is equal parts entertaining and important. Director Tim Spradlin deserves praise for bringing this gem to downtown Indy, as well as IndyFringe for hosting it at the District (former site of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave.

This production runs through March 24; get info and tickets at indyfringe.org.

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An American classic comes to life on Civic stage

By John Lyle Belden

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” the celebrated novel by Harper Lee, is likely a book you are familiar with, perhaps from reading it in school, or by seeing the Gregory Peck film which closely followed Lee’s story.

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents a live production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the play adapted by Christopher Sergel which is performed annually in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown on which the novel’s setting is based. Unlike that production, the local staging doesn’t pick a trial jury from the audience – but attorney Atticus Finch still speaks directly to us.

For the unfamiliar, the story, set in Mayscomb, Ala., in the mid-1930s, is told by Finch’s young daughter, Jean Louise, known as Scout. The play gives us a grown-up Jean Louise (Michelle Wafford), who emerges from the audience to narrate for her younger self (Bridget Bingham), who is trying to make sense of all the things happening around her.

Scout, her brother Jem (Dalyn Stewart) and friend Dill (Ben Boyce) are occupied with what the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley might look like. The only clues are items left in a tree in his yard. But a bigger distraction comes when Atticus (Steve Kruze) is appointed by Judge Taylor (Tom Smith) to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Antoine Demmings), who has been accused of beating and “having his way” with teenager Myella Ewell (Morgan Morton) by her father, town drunk Bob Ewell (Joe Steiner). The children endure taunts for their father defending a black man, but Atticus counsels them to endure and be confident he is doing the right thing. Scout wonders if she can feel pride in her father at all, until an incident with a mad dog reveals there’s more to the man than she ever suspected. Likewise, Jem wonders why his punishment for his vandalism of bitter, hateful neighbor Mrs. Dubose’s (Holly Stults) garden is to deliver kindness, until he comes to understand the whole situation.

The Robinson trial is a big spectacle, so the children sneak in to see it for themselves (thus allowing us to witness it), finding only room to sit in the “Colored” section with the Rev. Sykes (Brad Thompson). They marvel at how Atticus takes advantage of flaws in the testimony, and the kids are sure this will come out in their (and Robinson’s) favor. What does happen gives life lessons the children will never forget. And the events that follow will result in men killed, Jem injured, and Scout becoming a whole lot wiser.

Other notable characters include Sheriff Heck Tate (Clay Mabbit); the Finches’ cook, Calpurnia (Chandra Lynch); and an appearance by Boo Radley (Colby Rison) himself.

Under the direction of Emily Rogge Tzucker, this important story rises from the page to remind us of how horrible, yet accepted, hatred and injustice can be – then, and even more than 80 years later. Of course, that includes the bigoted context of the South in the 20th century, in which no person would even think of saying “African American” and “black” was mostly just a color you painted. So, be warned, the word “nigger” is used numerous times, by characters with either malice or apathy towards its dehumanizing effects. And if my writing the word out in the previous sentence bothers you too much, you should steel yourself before seeing this play – and go anyway.

Scout’s purpose in this story is to learn to see the world through others’ eyes – a man who would rather do what’s right than what’s popular, a person in unspeakable pain, a person judged purely by his skin tone, even a person who just can’t deal with other people – and thus teach us to do the same. Experience it for yourself at the Tarkington theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Feb. 23. Information and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

IRT reminds us of the very human cost of the Holocaust

By John Lyle Belden

A recent survey reported that an alarming percentage of people don’t believe the Holocaust happened, or that as many were killed as history attests (six million Jews, perhaps 17 million overall).

This makes productions such as the drama “The Diary of Anne Frank” — which opened the weekend before Holocaust Remembrance Day at Indiana Repertory Theatre — so vital to public conversation.

After the Nazis came to power in their native Germany (initially via elections, don’t forget), the Frank family moved to The Netherlands, where Otto Frank ran a small factory in Amsterdam. But then Germany started invading its neighbors, with the Dutch quickly succumbing to the blitzkrieg. Letting friends and neighbors assume they had made a run for Switzerland, Otto secreted his family, along with that of his best friends and fellow Jews, the Van Daan’s, in an upstairs “secret annex” to his plant. Non-Jewish allies, Mr. Kraler and Miep Gies, ran the factory and kept their secret, bringing them supplies at night. Along with his wife, Edith, Otto had his daughters — quiet, studious Margot, and energetic Anne, who stilled herself by obsessively writing in her diary. Hermann and Auguste Van Daan were accompanied by their teenage son, Peter. Miep later brought them an eighth refugee, dentist Albert Dussel, who kept to himself and kept sane thinking of his Gentile fiance waiting elsewhere in the city. Thus a group of people lived as best they could for two years, until their nightmares came true.

Those are the facts, the rest we know from the words of a girl growing up while her world crumbles outside. These words — from romantic optimism to despairing angst — come to life on the IRT’s stage, which is skillfully crafted by Bill Clarke to portray its cramped quarters (though more horizontally-arranged than the actual annex for dramatic reasons) with impeccable detail. Inhabiting it are an excellent cast of local and Seattle-area actors (this production will move — sets, actors and all — to Seattle Children’s Theatre later in the year).

Miranda Troutt wins and breaks our hearts as Anne, star and narrator of her story. Her frequent bouts of optimism both uplift and annoy her housemates, but she doesn’t hold back in her writings of her teenage frustrations. Hannah Ruwe portrays Margot, who is stronger in spirit than in body and striving to be more mentor than rival to her sister. Benjamin N.M. Ludiker plays Peter as an introvert gradually coming to terms with the force of nature who is slowly falling in love with him. Ryan Artzberger turns in another powerful IRT performance as Otto, whose bravery is contrasted with Betsy Schwartz’s worrisome Edith. Robert Neal and Constance Macy give layered performances as the Van Daans, his character pragmatic to a fault, hers desperately clinging to artifacts of their past life. Sydney Andrews is a ray of much-needed sunshine as Miep. Mark Goetzinger is solid as Kraler. Rob Johansen is oddly endearing as our feeling-out-of-place dentist.

This play does an excellent job, as director Janet Allen put it, “to put a human face on genocide.” Anne’s face smiles to us through old photographs, but we get a real person’s full spectrum of genuine human emotions and yearnings in her writings, and works like this that they inspired. For a deeper look beyond the dry pages of history texts and by-the-numbers online articles, get to know these very real people whom a regime declared less than human, condemned to extermination. Note that only one of the eight in the annex survives the war (spoiler alert — it’s not Anne).

IRT’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” will be presented to thousands of local students during its run. There are also public performances through Feb. 24 on the mainstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Go west (of downtown) to see ‘Laramie’

By John Lyle Belden

As I suspect it was for many other straight people, I can look back and see a rough point between “before” and “after.” A friend, coworker or family member turns out to be gay, or even officially comes out, and then others you know. You start to see things from the LGBTQ+ perspective. Then, suddenly, some jokes aren’t funny anymore, certain attitudes are absurd, and you feel embarrassed you used to indulge in any of that. Soon, you think of these individuals as friends, family, regular people — then no longer see them as “them.”

For America, one of those points was in the fall of 1998. Before then, to me. Laramie, Wyoming, was just a town where some of my cousins might still live, where I once visited historic Fort Laramie. To the general public, it was known as the home of the University of Wyoming, if they knew of it at all.

But the kidnapping, beating, torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 changed that.

The story of a 20-year-old gay man essentially crucified and left to die rocked the world, and shook the town to its core. The media frenzy and public assumptions about the people there didn’t help. Playwright Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project of New York went to Laramie in the months that followed. Their work, “The Laramie Project,” is not so much a traditional play as a live documentary. Its nonfiction text is all from writings and recordings at the time, including court proceedings, and the feelings of Laramie residents, those who knew Shepard and the perpetrators, and Tectonic company members. The only agenda of this project was the truth, an honest look at the people involved, the Laramie citizens, and ultimately all of us.

“You must tell your story,” one of the clergy interviewed says.

Now, local company No Holds Bard presents the story at Indy Convergence, just west of downtown, with profits going to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The cast of Abby Gilster, Clay Mabbitt, Denise Jaeckel, Nathan Thomas and Tristan Ross (who also directs) are talents who make a good play entertaining and a great play unforgettable — this one will stay with you for a while. These men and women portray various friends, relatives, witnesses, officials, reporters and regular people, as well as Tectonic members undertaking this delicate mission.

Ross’s range includes portraying Kaufman, the Judge, infamous minister Fred Phelps, and Shepard’s heartbroken father. Thomas not only plays sympathetic persons including the bartender who unknowingly saw the beginnings of the crime, the man who found Shepard on the fence, and a young theatre student finding himself coming out as an Ally; but also unflinching portrayals of the two men who committed the heinous acts.

I often refer to various works, from Shakespeare tragedies to goofy farces, as “must-see” — this time it is not hyperbole, or just me throwing my stage friends a bone. This is a show every American, teenage and older, should see. Ross, whose work I already love, and friends are even more wonderful in sharing this with Indianapolis now, as the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death was just days ago.

Going back to my starting point about changing attitudes, whether any member of cis-hetero America has transitioned to the “after” phase is up to us individually. It has become painfully plain that some are still stuck in the “before” — or even like it there. Thus, the importance of this work, even after two decades.

Tickets are only $15. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday 2:30 p.m. Sunday at 2611 W. Michigan St. Pay onsite, or get tickets here.

IndyFringe: ‘Aphrodite’s Refugees’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

It’s hard to not hear the word “refugees” in the news today. It’s bandied about on an almost daily basis. This tends to numb us to the meaning and situations that cause people to succumb to this status.

When show creator Monica Dionysiou witnessed an exhibit by Doctors Without Borders in her hometown of Boulder, Col., she felt inspired to revisit her family’s stories of their own struggles during the many battles for dominance on their home island of Cypress, and how they came to America in the first place.

You can now witness the beauty, tragedy, and resilience of these people in her stunning offering, “Aphrodite’s Refugees.”

She artfully weaves the history of the island as well as its struggles for independence from the various countries warring over it. (Cypress is located in the Mediterranean near Greece and Turkey, which both have claims.) The stories begin with recordings of her family in their own words which are then interpreted by her and her partner to show the changes in the landscape of the island throughout the years.

Dionysiou’s partner, Aaron Young, literally illustrates the struggle by painting the backdrop of the ever-changing landscape of her homeland. He also illuminates important points of the story with further drawings and animations to enhance the drama. Plus, the finished landscape is available for sale at the end of each performance so you can acquire a spectacular original piece of artwork to help you remember these bittersweet tales for long afterward.

We also find out the connection to the Greek goddess of the title. She is the deity of love — but, alas, her brother is Aries, God of War, and in their immortal games he’s holding the cards.

Performances are today and tomorrow (Aug. 25-26) at 6 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, at the Indyfringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 St. Clair St. (just east of the College and Mass Ave intersection).

IndyFringe: ‘Breakneck Julius Caesar’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

I like to joke with Tim Mooney that, contrary to the title, while there was a lot of stabbing, no one’s neck was broken in this performance (I could also mention that despite all the talk of Noble Romans, there was no pizza). But what we do have is, like his “Breakneck Hamlet,” a full Shakespeare drama condensed to less than an hour, leavened with humor — and in this case, some historical perspective.

We even get some audience participation, such as when the Citizens of Rome cry out (cues are put on a screen for our convenience). In fact, this show is notable not only for how much the script is cut down (and not noticeably, unless you are a Shakespeare scholar) but also for what is added. We get maps, historical asides (Brutus stabbed him where?!) and context for not only Rome but also the Elizabethan audience who first saw the play.

Mooney delivers it all, complete with costume changes, with precision and an easy style that never feels rushed. His mastery of the material is evident throughout, making the show both entertaining and enlightening.

Friends, Hoosiers, Fringe attendees: lend him your ears (he’ll give them back, promise!) at the Firehouse union hall, first floor, 748 Mass Ave.

IndyFringe: ‘Atlanta Burning, Sherman’s Shadows’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

“I do what I must, rather than what I wish,” laments Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union commander during the Civil War (in)famous for his scorched-earth March to the Sea in 1864, an effort to shorten the war (which did end the next year) by bringing its horrors to the civilian population of Georgia.

Playwright Lance Sherman Belville, a descendant of the general, presents an insight into the man’s thinking as he relates his plans to a trusted assistant and his general staff shortly before his fiery assault on Atlanta. We learn of his past relationship with Robert E. Lee (a classmate at West Point), his longing for his lost son, and his desire to not repeat what he saw as the greater tragedy of the siege of Vicksburg.

The show’s director, Lynn Lohr, plays the Major who Sherman uses as his sounding board, his “fool” to tell him what is wrong with the plans he is nevertheless determined to execute.

We also have a young Private, portrayed by Connor Buhl — who also plays a Union soldier in reenactments and at Connor Prairie. This, plus being the only player in full period uniform, makes him the most interesting and compelling character. He plays harmonica, and engages the audience without breaking character before the show, leading us in songs of the era.

The playwright plays his great-great uncle, holding and reading from the script that he (as Beville) says he is “still revising.” It’s a curious and brave choice, but he often stumbles over his own words, marring what is otherwise a highly-recommended living history lesson.

If you can ignore the papers in the playwright’s hand, or at least see them as reports or correspondence or maps in Gen. Sherman’s, sit back with some hardtack (provided) and get a new perspective on the story you may only know from a long-ago high school lesson or scene from “Gone With the Wind.” Performances are at the Indyfringe Basile (main) Stage at 719 St. Clair St., near the intersection of Mass Ave. and College.