IRT ‘Dial M’ nearly perfect

By John Lyle Belden

Many have considered what it would take to commit the “perfect crime;” some even attempt it. The concept is fascinating, especially when it comes to murder. This could explain why the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, chose the Frederick Knott stage drama, “Dial ‘M’ for Murder,” to be one of his iconic films.

To conclude its 2016-17 season Indiana Repertory Theatre presents Knott’s noir thriller, complete with Hitchcockian touches, on its mainstage through May 21.

Jealous, scheming husband Tony (Matt Mueller) has planned the perfect murder, arranging for an unsavory acquaintance to kill his wife Margot (Sarah Ruggles) while he is at a party, alibied by none other than the man she had had an affair with, Max (Christopher Allen). But when the perfect crime goes wrong, Tony resorts to the next-best thing: the perfect frame-job.

As always, the IRT provides excellent production values in setting and costume, and sharp direction under James Still (who is also IRT’s playwright-in-residence). The atmosphere is completed with projected images and shadows on the set’s upper walls. Performances are first-rate, including Robert Neal as Detective Inspector Hubbard, who must sort out the truth from the contradictory evidence he has found.

There’s also a cheeky touch that Hitch would have loved: Major scene changes are done by “detectives” acting as though they are removing and planting evidence.

The weather is warming up, but IRT is good for one more chill. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

Tensions of modern espionage play out in IRT’s ‘Miranda’

By John Lyle Belden

Meet Susanna Jones, known to some as Dana Sanders, and to her mother as “Miranda,” in the spy thriller by that name by Indiana Repertory Theatre playwright in residence James Still on the IRT upper stage through April 23.

An offstage character in Still’s “The House that Jack Built” (which it is not necessary to have seen), Miranda was said to be working overseas for IKEA. But actually, the appropriate letters are CIA.

As Susanna, Miranda (played by Jennifer Coombs) has as her cover an international program teaching Shakespeare to kids in Adan, Yemen. The ancient city actually sits in a dormant volcano, an excellent symbol of the growing tension of the play.

She works with and reports to John (Torrey Hanson), an old hand brought out of retirement for this very sensitive mission. No agent can get close to the men plotting local, regional and global terrorism, but Susanna can talk to one of the few female doctors, Dr. Al-Aghari (Arya Daire), as by religious law only women can touch women, and thus she treats local wives – who whisper secrets to her.

Meanwhile, only one young student, Shahid (Ninos Baba) has shown up to learn “Othello” (with his own ideas about which character is more Yemeni, which one more American). And a supervisor (Mary Beth Fisher) is not pleased that Miranda was inadvertently contacted by someone as her “Dana” alias the year before in Jordan.

This sets up a web of who-can-trust-who that draws the audience in, as our only reliable narrator is the title character (or is she?). A chance meeting at a café suddenly has broader meaning and context. Why do lights dim when they do? Where do characters go when they leave our sight? The Bard’s words, “I am not what I am,” haunt every scene.

Miranda, through Coombs performance, gives us far more of herself than she shows to the other characters. We see her addicted to the spy game, but also how it has affected her – “Bin Laden still shows up in my dreams,” she laments to her partner.

Daire garners our sympathy as a woman in a harsh but familiar world, torn between conflicting loyalties and cultures, while concerned for her own family’s survival. “Certainty is an American luxury,” the doctor tells Susanna.

Hanson and Fisher are also solid. Baba as Shahid gives us a unique perspective, reminding us that this is more than an American story.

The play is set in 2014, near a recent turning point in Yemen’s ongoing conflicts, giving the narrative freshness and urgency. Still did extensive research and interviews with people in the know, so that he could – as one character put it – “lie truthfully.”

No cloak and dagger are needed for you to find “Miranda” – the IRT is at 140 W. Washington St., near Circle Centre; call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source, which ran a story on this play in the April 1 edition, and will have an edited version of this review in the April 15 edition.

Triple-timing playboy in for bumpy landing in IRT’s ‘Boeing Boeing’

By John Lyle Belden

Everybody has a fool-proof system, until they are proven the fool. In “Boeing Boeing,” the popular farce by Marc Camoletti on the beautifully-set stage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Bernard (Matt Schwader) has the perfect love-life arrangement.

This architect playboy juggles three fiances, all air hostesses on different carriers. Thanks to ever-reliable airline timetables, they arrive at his Paris flat on different days, each oblivious of the others, keeping Bernard perpetually engaged – in both senses of the word. But faithful maid Berthe (Elizabeth Ledo) is getting tired of the shuffle, and Bernard’s college buddy Robert (Chris Klopatek), visiting from Wisconsin, asks the fateful question: What if all three of the women are in town at the same time?

Impossible, Bernard says – until it happens.

Hillary Clemens charms as Gloria, the hot American stewardess far more clever than she appears. Melisa Pereyra is siren-seductive as Gabriella, the passionate Italian. Greta Wohlrabe comes closest to the line between character and caricature as German hostess Gretchen, a Teutonic Amazon with a strudel-sweet side.

Schwader and Klopatek have the knack for the frantic acting required of this kind of comedy, as cool collected Bernard becomes more unraveled and fish-out-of-water Robert starts to go with the flow. In fact, all the cast have the rhythms of the farce down, with well-timed entrances and exits through seven sets of doors, the well-choreographed gags presenting a situation spiraling hilariously out of control.

As for Berthe – the eye of the hurricane, unlistened-to voice of reason, and keeper of the secrets no matter how morally questionable – Ledo’s performance is a bold punctuation to every scene, which she can’t be accused of stealing because she already owns it. Her look is reminiscent of Edna from “The Incredibles” (I couldn’t help but want her to say something about “no capes”) but it works in that she, too, is no one to trifle with and the best help to serve a show’s wacky plot.

Make your reservation for high-flying fun at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, next to Circle Centre, through April 2. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Boy overcomes inner blindness in IRT’s ‘The Cay’

By John Lyle Belden

It is interesting when a theatre, for its show during Black History Month, stages a production that gets us to think about race in a bigger context than the typical American struggle of black/white. Such is the case with “The Cay,” on the upperstage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre through Feb. 26.

Adapted from the Theodore Taylor novel by Gayle Cornelison, and directed by Richard J. Roberts, the two-person drama is told from the perspective of a white boy, Phillip (Dalyn Stewart), who has the adventure of a lifetime. It is 1942, and living in the Caribbean, he sees World War II as an exciting novelty. As the island of Curacao is home to a Royal Dutch Shell oil refinery, German U-boats lurk nearby. This fact goes from fascinating to frightening when one sinks the ship taking Phillip home to America.

The boy is pulled onto a makeshift raft by an old black man, Timothy (David Alan Anderson). Being from the Virgin Islands, he knows how to survive on the open sea, and later, upon the small island (the “Cay” of the title) where the raft is carried by the tides.

But their survival is complicated by two factors: Phillip being blind to his own white privilege and spoiled state, and being literally blinded by a head injury. Even without physical sight, he “sees” Timothy as “Black” as a cultural state of being, something fundamentally different than himself. Over time, Phillip’s inner vision is corrected as the old man teaches him lessons in self-reliance he will need in the coming tests.

Anderson is brilliant as always in his role, and Stewart is a revelation as he more than keeps up with his costar. A lot is put on his shoulders, being narrator as well as one of a two-person cast, and Stewart handles it with Tom-Sawyeresque charisma. (Or Huck Finn, if you wish, given the obvious plot comparisons.)

The other “star” of this production is Stew, the cook’s cat on Phillip and Timothy’s ill-fated ship, which ended up on the raft with them and as a companion on the island. Rather than wrangle a real housecat (with its own diva demands), scenic designer Eric Barker molded some common kitchen items into a metal cat which the actors move around as needed – sound designer and composer Matthew Tibbs provides violin-string “meows” when appropriate.

After the opening night performance, Roberts and Barker said the cat design inspired them to make other aspects of the set, including the towering palm trees and the fish the characters catch, constructed of the metal flotsam and jetsam of life that wash up on distant shores. The result is a strangely beautiful stage and unifying visual theme that fits the story perfectly.

Find the IRT downtown at 140 W. Washington St.; call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

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

An important ‘Dinner’ date at IRT

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre presents a beautiful production of the comic drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” by Todd Kreidler, based on the 1967 film’s screenplay by William Rose. And by “beautiful,” I also mean the set looks like a home you’d want to move into, with its free-standing fireplace, warm colors and comfortable yet stylish furniture. But the cast are not upstaged by these props; the actors deliver brilliant performances as IRT audiences have come to expect.

Annie Munch plays Joanna Drayton, the idealistic and optimistic daughter of a politically liberal newspaper publisher and his wife (Craig Spidle and Brigitt Markusfeld). She comes home unexpectedly, bringing her fiancé, accomplished physician Dr. John Prentice (Chike Johnson). But the bigger surprise, especially as it’s 1967 America, is that while the Draytons are white, Prentice is black.

This visit tests the beliefs, ethics, friendships and family ties of all. Mr. Drayton, writer of civil rights editorials, finds himself torn between hypocrisy and honest concern for his daughter.  The black maid Matilda (Lynda Gravatt) is suspicious of this well-dressed, well-spoken man, as she has seen too many con men who look like him. Mrs. Drayton is concerned not only about her feelings, but also those of her society-conscious friend Hilary (Constance Macy). Family friend Monsignor Ryan (Mark Goetzinger), practically a gushing fan of Dr. Prentice, provides welcome optimism. And then, there’s the less than happy reaction of Prentice’s parents (Cleavant Derricks and Nora Cole).

As I noted, all performances are excellent, drawing you into their world, which doesn’t seem quite so out-of-date with this era’s continuing arguments about race and equality. No man can fill the film’s star Sidney Poitier’s shoes, so regard Johnson as his own charming interpretation of the young doctor finding an unlikely second chance at love, and enjoy.

The humor inherent in this play puts fresh meaning to the term “situation comedy.” The side-splitting moments appear among the heart-testing ones, as we get both in great measure. The discussions, debates and arguments inspire thought as well as laughter — and at the performance I saw, some spontaneous applause.

I couldn’t help but think that this play could also work with a more updated look, and Joanna bringing home instead the woman she has fallen in love with. But no matter how it’s staged, this story – this test of how we truly feel when issues literally come to our doorstep – is important to see and experience. The play runs through Feb. 4 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., next to Circle Centre; call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

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