IRT: Join the ‘Club’

By Wendy Carson

Book clubs are meant to be a gathering place where friends, both new and old, can commune together over literature – but are they, really? Many devolve into socially-acceptable drinking parties in which wine and gossip are far more important than some silly book.

Ana (Andrea San Miguel) is determined to have her Book Club – begun prior to Oprah’s, she notes – to be the gold standard to which all others should be measured. In fact, her group has been selected by a notable Dutch documentary director to be the subject of his newest work, captured by an all-seeing-eye camera installed in their living room.

This is “The Book Club Play,” by Karen Zacarias, directed by Benjamin Hanna and playing on the main stage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, its first production before live audiences in over a year.

Ana’s group is comprised of her best friend, club co-creator Will (Will Mobley); faithful gal-pal Jen (Emily Berman); oh-so-perfect husband Rob (Sean Davis); and new (black) co-worker Lily (Cassia Thompson).

Will and Ana are literary elitists who insist that even though book choices rotate, they MUST be considered classic literature. Jen is doing her best to just get each book read (and find her keys), while Rob is only here because it’s at his house and he likes the snacks.

Lily appears to be the only member who is actually participating and gaining something from the group. Therefore, it’s no surprise that she disrupts the dynamic by not only choosing a recently popular novel as her selection, but also by inviting her neighbor Alex (Adam Poss) to the group.

Each of our actors also play short cameos of other people interviewed in the documetary.

Davis is spectacular as the jock husband who gains amazing insight into his being when he actually reads one of the books they choose. Berman plays Jen’s socially awkward bestie perfectly, embodying the comic timing of the role. Mobley does an excellent job of keeping the neurosis of his character in check with the desperate need for validation to bring out the empathy within. San Miguel brings Ana to life as controlling and haughty, while keeping her vulnerable. Thompson’s subtle turn at Lily keeps her part of the action without overtly betraying her role as instigator of the drama that unfolds. Poss is brilliant as the agent provocateur, questioning the club’s motives, choices, and inherent prejudices (both literary and social).

Aside from brilliant comedy, with moments of slapstick, this production is impressive for the simple yet elegant living room set coming alive between scenes with the words of various books projected on the walls, the work of scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee.

While a quote from the show describes it as “Lord of the Flies with Wine and Dip,” I think it’s better described as “A coed version of The Talk that you’d actually want to watch.” Oh, and please don’t exit the theater quickly as there is one final joke at the end of the credits.

Performances run through Oct. 31 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at irtlive.com.

Returning to the stage

By John Lyle Belden

Things are starting to look more “normal,” and that includes the central Indiana stage scene. Of course, the pandemic is still around, especially with Covid-19 variants still infecting and killing many. But with improving numbers of the vaccinated and taking common-sense measures by all of us, we can still celebrate our arts.

Alas, even though I’m vaccinated against diseases, I’m still not immune to Gremlins. One such critter has affected the Stage Schedule page on this site. So, until we get it fixed, check out the list below for ongoing and announced shows. In addition, check IndyFringe.org for more events leading up to the festival in mid-august.

See you in the audience; Curtain Up!

***

Last updated: July 25, 2021

Schedules subject to change, especially with changes in public health conditions.

See websites or call for Covid-19 safety policies.

2021

June 24 -Aug. 15

“The Sound of Music,” Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, 9301 N. Michigan Road; http://www.beefandboards.com

July 23-Aug. 2

“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Ricks-Weil Theatre Company at H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40), Greenfield; fb.com/RicksWeilTheatreCompany

July 28

“Sleepaway,” Summit Performance Indianapolis at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; (Free tickets) summitperformanceindy.com

July 30-Aug. 7

“Anton in Show Business” (all-female) Betty Rage production at Outback Stage at The District Theatre, 627 Mass. Ave., Indianapolis; IndyDistrictTheatre.org

Aug. 5-7

“Godspell,” Eclipse Summer Stock Stage at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Aug. 6-7

“Tuesdays With Morrie,” Live staged reading by Carmel Community Players at PrimeLife Enrichment, 1078 Third Ave. SW, Carmel; carmelplayers.org/whats-on-stage/tuesdays-with-morrie/

Aug. 6-13

“Crazy For You,” Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; footlite.org

Aug. 6-14

“Alice In Wonderland,” Mud Creek Players (outdoors), 9740 E. 86th St., Indianapolis; mudcreekplayers.org

Aug. 8

Sam C. Jones w/ Hank Ruff, in concert at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Aug. 13-14

“The Silent War,” Live staged reading by Carmel Community Players at PrimeLife Enrichment, 1078 Third Ave. SW, Carmel; carmelplayers.org/whats-on-stage/the-silent-war/

Aug. 13-22

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Zach & Zack productions at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; tickets.zachandzack.com, phoenixtheatre.org

Aug. 19-Oct. 3

“Newsies,” Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, 9301 N. Michigan Road; http://www.beefandboards.com

Aug. 19-Sept. 5

INDYFRINGE (Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival) Mass. Ave. area, Indianapolis; http://www.indyfringe.org

Aug. 20-Sept. 5

“The Two Kids That Blow Sh*t Up,” Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis; fonsecatheatre.org

Aug. 20-21

“Ripcord,” Live staged reading by Carmel Community Players at PrimeLife Enrichment, 1078 Third Ave. SW, Carmel; carmelplayers.org/whats-on-stage/ripcord-2/

Aug. 26-28

“Under the Big Top,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Sept. 10-Oct. 3

“Always, Patsy Cline,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

Sept. 10-19

“Boeing Boeing,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel;; carmelplayers.org

Sept. 16-26

“Arsenic and Old Lace,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Sept. 17-Oct. 3

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; footlite.org

Sept. 18-Oct. 3

“1980 (Or, Why I’m Voting for John Anderson),” Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, 717 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis; storefrontindy.com

TBA

“King Liz,” Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis; fonsecatheatre.org

Oct. 6-31

“The Book Club Play,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

Oct. 7-17

“Dracula,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

Oct. 7-31

“Alabaster,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Oct. 7-Nov. 21

“Phantom,” Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, 9301 N. Michigan Road; http://www.beefandboards.com

Oct. 8-23

“The Color Purple: The Musical,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org.

Oct. 8-17

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Bard Fest production at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; http://www.indybardfest.com

Oct. 9-10

“Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Buck Creek Players (outdoors), 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

Oct. 22-31

INDY BARD FEST (Shakespeare Festival): “Measure for Measure” at IndyFringe (downtown Indy), “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Love’s Labors Lost” at the Cat (Carmel), “Macbeth” at Theater at the Fort (Lawrence); http://www.indybardfest.com

Oct. 28-30

“There’s No Place Like Home,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Oct. 29-Nov. 21

“Lombardi,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

Nov. 5-14

“Rosie the Riveter,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

“Elizabeth Rex,” Indy Bard Fest at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave. (Lawrence); http://www.indybardfest.com.

Nov. 19-Dec. 12

“Holiday Inn,” Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; footlite.org

Nov. 26- Dec. 18

“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Nov. 26-Dec. 26

“A Christmas Carol,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

Nov. 27-Dec. 19

“Bakersfield Mist,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Dec. 2-12

“The Christmas Express,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Dec. 3-4

“The Nutcracker,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at Pike Performing Arts Center, Indianapolis; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Dec. 3-5

“Holiday Shorts,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel;; carmelplayers.org

Dec. 3-24

“Elf: The Musical,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Dec. 9-19

Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

Dec. 10-19

“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

2022

Jan. 26-Feb. 20

“Fahrenheit 451,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

Jan. 28-Feb. 20

“The Big Bang: The Musical,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

“Love Bird,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Feb. 4-13

“Good People,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

Feb. 4-19

“The Diary of Anne Frank,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Feb. 7-27

“Calendar Girls,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Feb. 10-20

“Of Mice and Men,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

Feb. 12-27

“The Black Dahlia,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Academy of GHDT, Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org

Feb. 25-March 6

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel;; carmelplayers.org

March 11-26

“Wait Until Dark,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org.

March 17- April 10

“The Magnolia Ballet,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

March 23-April 10

(TBA), Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

March 31-April 10

“Flaming Idiots,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

April 1-10

“Fly Babies,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

April 7-9

“Exodus,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

April 20-May 15

“The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

April 21-May 1

“Becky’s New Car,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

April 22-May 8

“The Fantasticks,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; carmelplayers.org

April 27-May 22

“Working: The Musical,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

April 28-May 22

“No AIDS, No Maids, or, Stories I Can’t F*ckin’ Hear No More,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

April 29-May 14

“Matilda: The Musical,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

May 10-June 5

“Steel Magnolias,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

June 2-12

“Rumors,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield;; westfieldplayhouse.org

June 3-19

“Little Women: The Broadway Musical,” Buck Creek Players (outdoors), 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com0

June 9-11

“Antony and Cleopatra,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

June 10-19

“A Medley of Murders,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; carmelplayers.org

June 16-26

“Now and Then,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Aug. 12-21

“Shipwrecked! An Entertainment,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; carmelplayers.org

IRT returns to ‘House that Jack Built’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre has done the most “IRT” thing it could have done, reviving (virtually) the play “The House That Jack Built,” by playwright-in-residence James Still, directed by the incomparable Janet Allen.

The performance, captured with the help of local public television station WFYI, is available to stream at your leisure through June 20 at irtlivevirtual.com.

“The House That Jack Built” is the start of a trilogy of three plays that can each stand alone, each with a distinctly different style. The character Jack almost literally haunts all three stories, a man of immense promise, beloved by friends and family, who disappeared in the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. This tragedy affects his sister, driving her to her dangerous career in the second drama, “Miranda.” The quest to move on ironically brings Jack’s daughter and his mother to one of his favorite places, Italy, in the quirky third play, “Appoggiatura.” But now, we have again the first story, establishing this close and troubled family as they gather for Thanksgiving at Jack’s widow’s Vermont home in 2012.

English-born Jules (Jennifer Johansen) is striving to be a perfect hostess, and has a lot of support from boyfriend Eli (Aaron Kirby), close friend – and Jack’s sister – Lulu (Constance Macy) and her husband Ridge (David Shih), and Jack’s mother, Helen (Jan Lucas), who also lives in the area. Others were planning on attending, but foul weather and work issues prevent them (these appear in the other plays).

Indianapolis theatre audiences are familiar with these actors, especially Johansen, Macy and Lucas, and all bring their best effort to an excellent deep examination of these characters. We feel their love and experience their easy humor, with a treasure trove of memories into which they dare not dig too deep. But no matter what facet of the past they look into, Jack is there. This spiritual and psychological weight they have carried for over a decade raises the question: Does his spirit haunt them, or are they clinging to it, “haunting” him?

For any fans of Still’s work, (or if, like me, you missed this play the first time around) this is a must-see. And a wonderful way to conclude this unusual IRT season. Allen, the Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director, says a new – more traditionally staged – season for 2021-22 will soon be announced.

IRT drama of how stories are told, and remembered

By John Lyle Belden

The play “Mrs. Harrison,” by R. Eric Thomas, has nothing to do with either past U.S. President with Hoosier connections. What this two-person drama, presented online by Indiana Repertory Theatre, is about are issues we struggle with today, and the stories that connect us.

In a posh restroom at an elite university, two women meet. Aisha (Celeste M. Cooper) doesn’t seem to remember Holly (Mary Williamson), who definitely knows her – and not just because of Aisha’s very popular Off-Broadway play. As they converse, at first they seem to feel each other out, get a measure of what they had been doing in the decade since they were classmates in a playwriting course. Proud African-American Aisha’s writing is serious and issue-driven. Average-looking white woman Holly works in humor, from a few years spent in stand-up comedy to her present modest success as a storyteller. It’s her way of dealing with the issues in her life – all her issues, except one.

Thus do we arrive at the heart of the matter, revealing in both women feelings of betrayal and righteous anger.

The IRT promotes the play as a story of how we remember our pasts, but of course it goes much deeper than that. In the women’s tense exchange is the question of who has the rights to a memory, and the story it tells, especially when it points to a deeper truth.

Directed by Mikael Burke (who directed last year’s “The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963”), Chicago actors Cooper and Williamson make a stunning IRT debut. Aisha wears her supreme confidence like a shield, ever ready to go on the defensive, while using her intense need to know everything about others as a sort of disarming charm. Holly is no sheltered maiden, but still gives flashes of the naive student who too easily trusts. As for the woman of the play’s title, she seems to become present like an invisible third character – her story revealing much about the two women we see, perhaps more than they are aware.

Needless to say, there is a racial element at play. It is not explicitly spelled out, but rest assured it would have been a totally different show if both women were Black, or White – but that’s not the story we are presented. The social issues and assumptions underlying these characters and their relationships, and even the modification of a familiar fable that Aisha tells, are fertile seeds for audience discussion.

“The conversations you’ll have after the play are as important as the story you’re seeing on stage,” Thomas says in his program note. “To me, that’s one of the best parts of theatre.”

And with the show, recorded by WFYI Public Television, streaming at irtlivevirtual.com, you can have those talks in the comfort of your own living room.

“Mrs. Harrison” is available through May 30.

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.

IRT ‘Tuesdays’ provides lesson for any day

By John Lyle Belden

Morrie Schwartz wrote his own epitaph: “A Teacher to the Last.” But the lesson hasn’t ended; he’s still teaching us about life today.

The old college professor’s wisdom was captured by friend and former student Mitch Albom in his bestselling book, “Tuesdays With Morrie.” The stage play, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, is presented by Indiana Repertory Theatre through Feb. 21. The production, directed by Benjamin Hanna with Ryan Artzberger as Mitch and Henry Woronicz as Morrie, was recorded on the IRT mainstage earlier this month by local Public Television station WFYI for viewing online.

Mitch had treasured his time with Morrie at Brandeis University, taking every one of the old man’s Sociology classes. They inspired him to follow his dream of becoming a jazz pianist after college. But life has a way of killing one’s dreams, so Mitch turned to his other talent, writing, and became a successful sportswriter and columnist. He left Morrie’s gentle guidance in the past, embracing the hard-hitting world of chasing the next deadline.

Until the night he happened to watch an episode of “Nightline.”

Morrie’s life had changed as well. His spry energy – he loved to dance – was failing him, and it was discovered he had ALS (popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and, at most, months to live. His decision to confront dying head-on, ironically enriching his life, got the attention of local media, and eventually Ted Koppel.

Upon learning of Morrie’s condition, Mitch took a brief moment from his frantic schedule to pay him a visit. It was only going to be one Tuesday afternoon, but he eventually went back, and kept returning to Morrie’s Massachusetts home every week until the professor was gone. Ever the journalist, Mitch asked questions, which his mentor gladly answered, re-cementing a bond that not even death could break.

The script by Albom and Hatcher is loaded with refreshing drops of wisdom by Schwartz – a welcome relief from the spiritual drought of this last year – delivered with sincere joy by Woronicz, who also contemplated life’s final chapters in his previous IRT role in “Morning After Grace.” Artzberger, a familiar face to local audiences, also played Mitch at the IRT about a decade ago, and comfortably still fits Albom’s shoes.

Like real life (which this is based on), there are many sad and heart-touching moments, but there is also an abundance of humor natural to the exchange of quips between a wise teacher and the student who doesn’t realize he has so much to learn, or between two souls who truly love one another. The overall arc is uplifting, something we all need right now.

To take this master class in life, visit irtlive.com. A $30 virtual ticket gives access to those gathered around the screen, perhaps the IRT’s best value (though your friends should consider hitting that “donate” button).

IRT’s Christie mystery an exciting ride

By Wendy Carson

In whodunits, the locked-door mystery is one of the cornerstones and most compelling of all scenarios in the genre. Someone had to have done it, but who, and how? Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is one of the most original versions of the mystery in existence – not only because of the lavish setting, but also the revolutionary solution to the puzzle. Famed playwright Ken Ludwig has adapted this intriguing story for the stage, now playing at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Andrew May) has to cut his vacation in Istanbul short to take a case in England. In need of quick travel arrangements, he accepts an offer from his dear friend, Monsieur Bouc (Gavin Lawrence), of transport on his company’s train, the luxurious and now-legendary Orient Express. These two are joined by a quirky array of travelers.

British Colonel Arbuthnot (Ryan Artzberger) and Mary Debenham (Nastacia Guimont) are scheming about something in secret, yet not too covertly.

Samuel Ratchett (Ryan Artzberger in a second role) is a loud, rude American “businessman” who feels money can buy anyone or anything. Hector MacQueen (Aaron Kirby) is his overworked and oft-abused secretary.

Princess Dragomiroff (Dale Hodges), one of a number of exiled Russian royalty roaming about Europe, is traveling with a new companion, Greta Ohlsson (Callie Johnson) who has been serving as a missionary in Africa and is very unsure of anything.

The beautiful Countess Andrenyi (Katie Bradley) is traveling on her own. With her storied past, including a stint as a medical doctor, she intrigues everyone, including the elusive Poirot.

Also traveling on her own is the obnoxiously abrasive Helen Hubbard (Jennifer Joplin), an American who quickly gets herself on everyone’s “hit list.” Attempting to oversee all of this is Michel (Rob Johansen), the train’s French conductor.

Add to this a snowstorm that stops the train – right before a murder occurs – and you have a wonderful setting for a grand mystery. All passengers are accounted for at the time of the killing, or are they?

Anyone familiar with the character of Poirot knows that he is a quirky and particular personality. May adeptly explores as many facets as he can without frolicking into the territory of camp. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Artzberger does an exceptional job of playing vastly different characters with great aplomb. Guimont keeps her character a frigid distance from all but Arbuthnot, seemingly as a protective guise.

Joplin submerges herself into the typical “ugly American” so well, it is surprising that she is not the one who meets with the knife.

Hodges keeps the Princess as mysterious as her peculiar wardrobe. Johnson’s take on Ohlsson, the missionary, is wacky and almost overdone, but it does lend some lightness to the dark tale.

Kirby does an exceptional job of keeping his character sympathetic rather than just shady. Lawrence deftly keeps his frantic businessman persona from being entirely heartless, worrying equally about the safety of his passengers and the bad press a murder would bring to his luxury rail service.

Johansen shines both as the Conductor – not quite as minor a role as you’d first think – and his hilarious turn as the Head Waiter of Bouc’s restaurant in the show’s opening scene.

Bradley as the Countess enthralls us all, characters and audience alike, daintily dancing her way through the story never demanding but certainly drawing all attention available to her.

Christie’s story is a tale for the ages, especially with a twist ending that anyone unfamiliar with the book or movies will never see coming. Director Risa Brainin does a remarkable job keeping the soberness of the entire drama while allowing for its sharp wit, no doubt aided by Ludwig (known for farces like “Lend Me a Tenor”), to shine through.

The stage is a visual spectacle worthy of the legendary train, with designer Robert M. Koharchik placing elements of the sleeping and dining cars on an inventive rotating stage. This and projected elements by L.B. Morse give the proper sense of motion and help the scenes flow when the Express is stopped, maintaining the necessary tension. Even if you already know how it will eventually play out, it’s one exciting ride.

“Murder on the Orient Express” runs through March 29 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

For young audiences, IRT presents the power of positive playacting

By Wendy Carson

Our new friends, Devan (Mathias), Isaiah (Moore), and Frankie (Bolda) have decided to put on a play for us.

Devan has drawn a picture of a train and wants to deliver it to her other friends who live a long way away on the other side of the big, big hill. So it is decided that Devan will be a train engine, Isaiah wants to be everything but finally settles on being a doggie passenger on the train, and Frankie will help out by making all the proper sounds throughout.

This is “The Little Choo-Choo That Thinks She Can,” the return engagement of a play for very young patrons at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, a familiar story made new by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still.

Once the train is all loaded up with passengers, Devan begins the trip up the big, big hill. However, the hill is just too big for her to make it over. She tries to enlist the assistance of various other engines but they all can’t, or won’t, help her out. 

She keeps trying, and each attempt gets her a little farther up the big, big hill — but quite not over it. We, her friends in the audience, offer encouragement to assist her in believing she has the ability to actually make it up the big, big hill by herself.

Will she make it? Will her special delivery get through to her friends? What sound does a giraffe make? These questions and others will be answered in terms that preschoolers, special-needs kids, and even the grown-ups who brought them will understand..

This show is a wonderful introduction to live theater shows for young children. It never talks down to them and encourages them to have fun, be themselves and maybe even learn a thing or two.

The room is divided into three seating areas. Each actor takes one section and gets to know their new friends (the individual kids in the audience) prior to the show. We are all asked to participate in the show, but only to our levels of comfort. 

This was especially evident in the performance I attended, one of their “Sensory Friendly Performances:” The lights are kept brighter; there are fidget spinners, headphones, and other toys available to use during the show; and it is acceptable to leave and return as the need requires. There is also a guide for parents to assist with knowing when loud or potentially off-putting things will occur. This allows all attendees to enjoy the show as much as possible. In fact, I hardly would have known it was not a regular performance if they had not brought it up beforehand.

The play was a delight for myself and my companions, especially the precocious little 4-year old for whom this was her first live show. She liked meeting Isaiah, both as an actor with skin like hers, as well as the purple puppy. She told me and her mother she can’t wait to see a play again.

This IRT Exploring Stages production (targeted to ages 3-8) is directed by Benjamin Hanna. Performances are held in the “cabaret” space, which isn’t too big and allows for easy interaction, through March 1. Tickets start at just $8 for a child to sit on the floor near the action, $17 for an adult to join them. The IRT is at 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis, close to Circle Centre. For more information, call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Not an easy road for family in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a story many can relate to: A family takes a road-trip to another state to visit a grandparent, in part to give the teenage son a chance, away from neighborhood distractions, to think about where his life is going. Little sister tattles when one brother pokes another. Younger brother has his favorite song played over and over and over. So, it’s a family comedy, right?

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” (based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis, adapted by Cheryl L. West) adds a more serious context: an African-American family’s journey into the Jim Crow South.

At the Indiana Repertory Theatre through March 1 (effectively throughout Black History Month), parents Daniel and Wilona (Bryant Bentley and Tiffany Gilliam) travel with misbehaving teen Byron (Brian Wilson), five-year-old daughter Joey (Dalia Yoder), and nine-year-old Kenny (Xavier Adams) — through whose eyes we see the story — from their home in Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama, and the home of Grandma Sands (Milicent Wright). 

Though the family is fictional, the world they live in was all too real, and not that long ago. The Watsons carry the Green Book, a reference of places safe for black travelers to stop. They dare not go to just any gas station or motel — like a white family — and the idea of just driving until you are tired is foolhardy and dangerous, as the Watsons discover. Even the police, who should be there to protect them, are potential predators. At Grandma’s house they are safe, but they know venturing out at all carries risk. Still, nothing has prepared them for when one of the most tragic incidents of the Civil Rights Era rocks the family to its core.

Bentley plays a dad who is likeable and practical, and a little stubborn; for him, family is everything. Gilliam’s Wilona clings to her better memories of the Alabama she grew up in, her one blind spot for a mom otherwise prudent and cautious. The three youths excellently act “their age,” the boys showing some growth as the events affect them. Yoder’s Joey stays perpetually innocent, always charmingly standing up for whichever sibling is in trouble at the moment. Wright, a familiar face on IRT stages, is a welcome presence, effortlessly commanding. The cast also includes Grayson Molin in two starkly contrasting roles — as Buphead, Byron’s white best friend; and later as an unfriendly native Alabamian. 

Directed by Mikael Burke, with excellent visual effects by Reuben Lucas, the play is a study of contrasts, especially between the familial humor of the road trip and the moments of horror. Current events add the irony that Flint, a struggling, literally toxic place now, was in the ‘60s a thriving city and comforting home base for the Watsons. But they return there changed, and Kenny nearly broken. Find out how, why — and experience the terror of the “Wool-Pooh.”

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” in one movie-length act on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com