Before the ‘bang:’ A visit with Van Gogh

By John Lyle Belden

Welcome to the world of Vincent Van Gogh!

Our entry is via the path of “Exhausted Paint” by Justin Maxwell, a playwright and Associate Professor at the University of New Orleans (another world of French style and cool cafes), presented by MFA student Drew Stroud with tour producer and wife Carly Stroud, directed by Baton Rouge-based R’Myni Watson. The Strouds have brought this one-man performance to the IndyFringe Indy Eleven stage for a single weekend before taking it to Illinois in April.

The subtitle, “The Death of Van Gogh,” is a bit misleading. The troubled genius painter was presumably alone when shot in the chest by a small-caliber revolver. It wasn’t the bullet that killed him, but the ensuing infection, 30 hours later on July 29, 1890. This isn’t covered in-depth in the play, though we eventually see it coming. (Theories have abounded in the years since, from an apparent suicide attempt to accident and even murder, but look elsewhere to expound on that.)

However, we do meet him in his final years, 1888 in Arles, France, through the birth of the namesake nephew he would never meet, in January 1890, to the day he wanders off with the gun. Correction: Time travel isn’t real (sorry, Doctor Who fans) so we’re meeting him in 2023 on a cluttered stage with painting supplies, an easel, random objects and some sort of rotating drum. And here is Vincent, who admits he is more a pop culture object now, embodied for the moment by an actor who speaks bad French (“His Dutch is even worse,” Van Gogh quips) yet through this theatre graduate student with hair dyed the copper sheen of one of the famous self-portraits, he remarks on that two-year period, based on the numerous letters he wrote to his brother – the man who financially supported him, as only one of his multitude of paintings sold in his lifetime.

Since the artist is being channeled through an improv performer, and befitting a history of various unspecified mental disorders (he leaves that up to others to define, but admits syphilis as a factor isn’t out of the question), Vincent frequently spins the drum, which has numerous parchment words stuck to it. He then pulls one, and lets the prompt guide his next brief monologue, memory, action, or audience encounter. He drinks wine, he drinks turpentine (not recommended), he bandages his head (you probably know why), he offers a bite of his potato. He labors at the canvas in bold strokes, then shows you his whole world in an envelope. He is amused, he is troubled, he is in touch with God, he is lonely, he pursues the light, he finds color in darkness. Nature – the crow, the tree root, the very atmosphere – mocks him. Another hasty drink, and the drum spins again. Stroud noted after the show this structure is indeed random, helping make no two performances the same.

Despite attempting only one French phrase, our 21st-century man does an excellent job embodying the master, complete with tics of mental distraction that don’t sink to caricature, in a modern colloquial style – complete with a few F-bombs – that would befit an Impressionist genius who just appeared, a la “Bill and Ted,” in our lecture hall. Thus I highly recommend this to anyone, teenage an up, interested at all in the man, his life and work. Through this appropriately unconventional means, we gain surprising insight into his story, and what makes his paintings – which you could have picked up back in the day for a handful of francs – worth multiple millions of dollars today. (This irony is not lost on the spirit of Vincent, either!)

If you happen to catch this review as I post it, you have a couple more opportunities to see “Exhausted Paint” in Indianapolis, today and Sunday (March 25-26) at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair St. Get tickets at Upcoming performances are in Jacksonville, Ill., April 13; Springfield, April 14-16; and Decatur, April 18. Get info at

Orange is the new Bard

This is part of Indy Bard Fest 2022, the annual Indianapolis area Shakespeare Festival. For information and tickets, visit

By John Lyle Belden

Welcome to a secure common room at a local women’s prison. The ladies of D Block present for the visitors (us) the fruits of their fine arts program, a staging of William Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” adapted by the company with director Glenn Dobbs.

For those like me who sometimes struggle to keep all the Histories straight, Richard II (1377-1399) rules England over 150 years after the fall of King John – who was brother to Richard I (Lionheart), among the first Plantagenet Kings, and the unfortunate subject of another Bard Fest offering this year. Richard will end his reign childless (no obvious heir) as the Plantagenets fracture into the Houses of Lancaster and York in the Wars of the Roses. Also, like John, he is not regarded well by history and lore, considered a tyrant especially as he was a big believer in a king’s absolute power by Divine Right.

As presented by these orange-clad thespians, we easily accept that the mostly-male characters will all have feminine voices. This cast of local actors (not real felons, but play along) get to engage in two levels of character work. Aside from portraying the machinations of the 14th Century English Court, they are also women forged in difficult circumstance, feeling a familiarity to this treacherous culture. At any moment, your blood could be on the floor. To emphasize a challenge, a pack of premium smokes cast down is your gauntlet. Which boss inmate you follow can be a matter of life or death, and that crown – whether metal or bandana – is never fully secure.

Outstanding talents take the lead: Afton Shepard as Richard and Rayanna Bibbs as cousin/rival/successor Bolingbroke; with Damick Lalioff as the Duke of York, Evangeline Bouw as Richard’s faithful noble Aumerle, Savannah Scarborough as Bolingbroke’s right hand Northumberland, Nan Macy as John of Gaunt and the Duchess of York, and Sofy Vida as the banished Mowbray and secretive Bishop of Carlisle. Great contributions as well by Missy Rump, Genna Sever, Gracie Streib, Rachel Kelso, Jamie Devine, Gillian Bennett, Gillian Lintz, and a special shout-out to young Ellie Richart as Richard at coronation.

Shepard gives the kind of strong performance we’ve come to expect from her, showing all the various infamous aspects of the King, delivered with an instability that flows from the madness of power to the wilder madness of being without it. Bibbs gives a commanding performance like someone who somehow knows he will be the title character of the next two plays in the series. Bouw gives us a tragic character we can feel for, a young Duke sure he is on the right side – until he isn’t – then all too desperate to redeem himself. Lalioff smartly plays York as shrewd and decisive (things Richard is not), enabling him to ride the changing tides. Macy is again a marvel in her paternal and maternal roles.

It is from this play we get the line, “let us… tell sad stories of the death of kings,” and what a story we are delivered here! Three performances remain, Friday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, in the Indy Eleven Theatre at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis.  

IndyFringe: Ship of Dreams

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at

By Wendy Carson

First of all, I must warn you that this show is one of the hottest selling tickets at this year’s IndyFringe and every performance has and will sell out. Get your tickets immediately, or regret missing the greatest parody of an Oscar-winning tragic film in existence.

Even before the show begins, our captain, Jason Adams, is inviting the crowd to draw some artworks for the overhead projector used during the show

All of the movie’s major plot elements are covered here, including only referring to one character by the name of the actor portraying him. The show features extremely pun-filled dialogue, visuals on the projector, and simple cardboard props used so well they raise the level of each scene where they appear.

The spectacle reaches epic proportions encompassing karaoke, kazoo ballet, a singing iceberg, and the spectacular dance number showing the dramatic ending to the ship.

Paige Scott and her amazingly talented Party Island troupe of performers (Elysia Rohn, Courtney McClure Murray, Aaron Stillerman, Taylor Daine, Chad Woodward, and Brittany Magee) are each spectacular in all their numerous roles. Adams’ work on the overhead projector is just icing on this deliciously witty cake.

The 7:15 p.m. Friday performance is sold out, so act quickly to get on board 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4, on the Indy Eleven stage at the IndyFringe Theatre.

IndyFringe: 90 Lies an Hour

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at

By John Lyle Belden

Humorist, musician, and storyteller Paul Strickland brings us to the Big Fib Trailer Park Cul-de-sac, home of Aunt True and Uncle False, for four stories and a song.

We learn how the couple met, at the car that only ran on cuss-words. Also, when Strickland was asked to write a eulogy for a man whom he had never met, and the trailer-park residents didn’t really like.

Then there was when the living-room toilet wasn’t as unusual as what was going on outside.

So, feel free to open up the box of “one-abouts” and enjoy some tall tales that stretch the imagination as well as the funny bone, and put spring pigs in flight. We also hear the sweet tune in which Uncle False tells Aunt True “there’s so much ‘us’ left to do.”

Strickland was a hit at past IndyFringes, and will no doubt fill the Indy Eleven room of the IndyFringe Theatre as everyone learns he’s back with some wonderful wonder-full stories to tell, for all ages.  Performances are 5:15 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28 (today as we post this), as well as 5:30 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2-3.

IndyFringe: meSSeS

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at

By Wendy Carson

It has been a few years since we have had a clowning master class at IndyFringe, but this year, with “meSSeS,” Janoah Bailin brings us a spectacular one.

First, each audience member is given three scarves with which you will learn the rudimentary skills of juggling during the show and will only get better with practice (he also has a QR code link to his teaching online).

Janoah shows us his juggling prowess using balls, swords, pins, as well as popcorn kernels at one point. His is also a master of not one, but two unicycles of varying heights. He performs some very original gags and spectacular feats of balancing, but it is in the allowing for some of his stunts to go wrong that his humor shines.

I honestly can’t give you more details without spoiling some of the humor but suffice it to say that the show is a family friendly delight. Bring out the kids and see who ends up being the best juggler in the family. Performances are 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27 (today as we post this), and next Saturday (7 p.m.) and Sunday (5:15 p.m.), Sept. 3-4, at the Indy Eleven stage in the IndyFringe Theatre.

IndyFringe: Jon Bennett — Fire in the Meth Lab

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at

By Wendy Carson

First, I must note, these are true stories, as well as the search for one brother’s connection to the older one he tried so hard to love.

In “Fire in the Meth Lab,” Jon Bennett has come up from his home in Australia to share his stories about his brother’s journey with addiction. We are presented with Tim’s six major addictions throughout his life, varying from pop stars to meth.

While all the above sound like some pretty serious topics to deal with, I can assure you that this is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen at this year’s IndyFringe.

Bennett discusses how he idolized his brother even though Tim took every possible chance he could to bully him. Their main touchstones were fighting, floor ice cream, and watching The Wonder Years. Being the sons of a minister didn’t help their predicament.

What makes this show truly work is Bennett’s storytelling and mining these tales for all of the humor inside them. He genuinely loves his brother, but just can’t get this across to him.

Honestly, this show is so much funnier than it probably should be, given the subject matter. Yet we all have those stories of someone getting somehow intoxicated and craziness ensuing. If nothing else, go see it for the amazing Jason Donovan trivia questions.

Performances are 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27 (today, as we post this) as well as 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2 and noon Sunday, Sept. 4, on the Indy Eleven stage at the IndyFringe Theatre.

IndyFringe: Exes and Embryos

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at

By John Lyle Belden

Standup comedian Mandee McKelvey (who brought us last year’s “How I Got My Warts Prayed Off”) returns with a new hour of comedy that’s a bit discomforting and roll out of your seats hilarious.

An out-of-the-blue inquiry by a distant friend – would Mandee like to take her extra frozen embryo? – sparks a rather twisty train of thought that includes 15 solid minutes of ranting about semen (using the more common crude word that sounds like a verb). If you can manage that, she also talks about her abortion.

For mature audiences with mature minds who don’t mind some crude humor, this is a must-see. McKelvey’s frank and upbeat delivery (“just trying to find lightness in the darkness”) will win you over. Learn how IVF is like an expensive carnival game, and that standup comedy is not “family friendly” from the comic’s perspective.

Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings, Aug. 26-27, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Sept. 3-4, on the Indy Eleven stage at the IndyFringe Theatre.

IndyFringe: Ron Popp is a Responsible Adult

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at

By Wendy Carson

This is Ron Popp’s third show at IndyFringe and sadly it is his last, at least for a while. His keen observational humor, though, is still as sharp as ever.

He discusses various issues that resonate today such as aging (“I feel like I walked onto the set of ‘Cocoon’”); sensible gun laws (“even Chekhov had a three-act waiting period”); the state of our country (“we have racism, sexism – community productions of ‘Equus’”); and so much more.

We learn about his life during COVID, surviving the ‘90s, getting a new therapist, and being too gay to get cast in “The Wizard of Oz.”

The show is a laugh riot; it should not be missed as we cannot be sure how long it will be before he returns. Fortunately, you have four shots at this: 10:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 27-28; 5:30 p.m. Thursday and 8:45 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1 and 3; on the Indy Eleven stage at the IndyFringe Theatre.

IndyFringe: Breakneck Comedy of Errors

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at

By Wendy Carson

Tim Mooney returns with his one-man production of one of Shakespeare’s zaniest plays.

Wearing literally dozens of hats to try to help keep the characters straight (there are two sets of identical twins with each pair sharing the same name), he gives us “Breakneck Comedy of Errors,” presenting the entire Shakespeare comedy within the 1-hour limit of a Fringe show.

While his other offerings relied more strongly on various monologues, this one keeps things sparkling with witty commentary. For example, after one brother and his servant spend years searching for each’s twin, when the brother encounters his servant’s twin who gives him a totally different account of their previous interaction, rather than considering that this might be his servant’s twin brother (for whom they have sought) , he immediately thinks that the country is full of sorcerers and they must leave or be killed by the witches. Needless to say, with so many cases of mistaken identity throughout the story, hilarity ensues.

So, if you are a fan of Mr. Mooney, The Bard, or just looking for a goofy time with lots of hats, this is the show for you. Content is appropriate for all ages; while younger children will likely not follow the plot, they will still enjoy the show. Remaining performances are Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, Aug. 27-28, at the Indy Eleven stage of the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

IndyFringe: My Grandmother’s Eyepatch

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to the memorial service for Mamie Lee Ratliff Finger, beloved wife, mother and grandmother.

Julia Finger VanderVeen, Mamie’s granddaughter, has brought us all to pay tribute to the life of this remarkable woman. Through stories told by several attendees and Julia herself, we discover much about Mamie’s life and times.

For some strange reason, we learn almost as much about Julia throughout the course of our event. Perhaps this portion of the show was meant to be for the several Agents who RSVP’d but did not actually show up.

At one point, Julia becomes so bereft that when a message with instructions for resurrection of a loved one finds its way to us, she makes an attempt. Whether it is successful, I must leave for you to discover.

I could go on to try to describe exactly how great this show is, but words cannot fully express the sheer level of hilarity Julia reaches with her dry wit and physical humor. Suffice to say, you will regret not seeing this show.

Yet, while her grandmother’s time is through, there is still time for you. The show returns for the last weekend of Fringe, 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 1, and 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3, at the Indy Eleven stage of the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.