ALT: Voices on the right take their ‘Turn’

By John Lyle Belden

What if you were in an echo chamber, and the voice coming back questioned you? Or said something else entirely?

Welcome to the edge of a small town in the west-central part of Wyoming, home of cowboys and a Catholic college. It’s Trump country – especially in August 2017, with conservatives still grateful they narrowly avoided a Hillary Clinton presidency and perhaps realizing that buffoonery was about all they would get from the President they elected.

In the Pulitzer-nominated drama “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” by Will Arbery, presented by American Lives Theatre, you will find no “liberals,” yet these four young men and women gathering seven years after graduation from the college, celebrating their mentor becoming its president, aren’t entirely of the same mind.

The atmosphere is ominous: Could it be that the infamous Charlottesville riot was just days ago? Or that this land where the Plains meets the Rockies will soon be in the totality of a solar eclipse? Or is it something about the deer that Justin (Tyler Lyons) shot, or that unnatural noise in his shed? His guests – Teresa (Morgan Morton), who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and admires then-White House advisor Steve Bannon; Kevin (Taylor Cox), an apparent alcoholic working for a Catholic publisher in Oklahoma; and Emily (Devan Mathias), who lives with chronic pain and in the shadow of her mother, Dr. Gina Presson (Gigi Jennewein), whom they have gathered to honor – start to have what Kevin likes to call “big conversations.”

Teresa is fascinated by the controversial 1997 book, “The Fourth Turning,” by social scientists William Strauss and Neil Howe, and treats it like prophesy, asserting the “Turning,” a time of upheaval, is upon them. She calls it an imminent “war,” and Justin, a Marine veteran, agrees, seeing the conflict not as spiritual, cultural or rhetorical, but armed revolution. Emily, who battles mental and physical torment with an exceptionally upbeat outlook – “pain and grace,” she calls it – doesn’t want to hear any of it. Kevin, feeling uncertain about everything, wants to delve further. To change the topic, Justin tells of a children’s-book story he is working on, “The Grateful Acre,” about the stoic optimism of a plot of land.

Eventually Gina arrives, and when prodded for her thoughts, adds her perspective to the party.

In the words of Arbery, with the guidance of director Andrew Kramer, we get excellent insight on what people on the political right are thinking and why. Any notes from the other side of the spectrum come from experiences with others, as bits of devil’s advocacy, or in warnings from Teresa that “this is what they say about us.” The militant and reactionary perspectives dash against the rocks of Gina’s intellectual conservatism (think Bannon vs. George Will), but even her logic frays at the edges.

Morton and Lyons are solid as characters who stick to their guns (one figuratively, the other literally). Jennewein’s stalwart academic reminds me now much I miss the relatively measured stance of the late Bill Buckley Jr.

Mathias nimbly gives us a necessarily complex character, too often finding herself in the middle of things with no real control. Emily also has a life experience that impacts her conservative Catholic beliefs, a thing that won’t reconcile easily.

“It’s hard to be the ‘Holy Fool,’” Kevin says, but Cox gives us a master class in embodying the archetype. Like the Fool who stood by King Lear in a storm, his Kevin is all over the place both in dialogue and movement, ever probing for the veritas his vino won’t provide. Ridicule, insult or pity him – as others do – but his jagged queries are worthy of answers.

This play was written and first staged in 2019, yet instead of feeling dated its contents become more profound in the light of what would happen in America over the next three years. One can argue if the Pandemic is the Fourth Turning, or if events have damaged the presumptions of Strauss and Howe’s work, but what’s portrayed are what people did (and do) think and feel.

Regardless of your place on the political spectrum, this is a worthy challenge to experience, leavened with a few situational laughs and a curious bit of supernatural edge. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, at the Basile IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at AmericanLivesTheatre.org or IndyFringe.org.

Executive dysfunction in holiday parody

By John Lyle Belden

As we settled in for a long winter’s viewing of “The North Wing,” an original Christmas musical presented by Defiance Comedy at the IndyFringe theatre, Molly North, assistant to the show’s writer and director, Matt Kramer, said this is like if “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin had (presumably under the influence of something) decided to write about the Santa Claus Workshop at the North Pole, and add music.

Well… there is a “walk-and-talk” scene, so we’ll go with that.

Since Burl Ives is dead and Josh Gad costs too much, we have the lovely Paige Scott as our narrator, Jeff the Snowman, ironically with a warmer heart than her other role, Mrs. Claus. The former is charming, literally disarming, and proud to be “a waste of resources.” The latter seems to take pleasure in being naughty – which could be a problem in this setting.

Clay Mabbitt is Thomas the Human (not the one shipped off to New York, that’s another musical), the leading assistant to retiring Head Elf, Mr. Hinkle-Twinkle (Ben Rockey, one of a number of Elfin roles) who apparently learned to speak English by watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After another Christmas Eve in which holiday spirit is down, the old man steps down and, before Thomas can be promoted, Mrs. Claus announces an outside hire: Janet (Meg McLane) the human former executive of a Toy Corporation, who has lots of ideas for improving things at The North Wing.

Imminent changes with only 364 Days Until Christmas have elf executive assistant Beatrice (Shelby Myers), Phil the Elf (Austin Hookfin), and random Elves (Rockey and Robin Kildall) very worried. It doesn’t help that Judy Sparkles of North Pole News (Kelsey VanVoorst) reports that disaster is inevitable. It’s enough to drive one to drink – with libations served by Blumpkin the reindeer bartender (VanVoorst in antlers and red nose).

As befits a story inspired by real-world political intrigue, this all gets really silly, really fast. And there are songs. And dancing (choreography by Emily Bohannon). And romance. And, of course, the traditional plots to destroy/save Christmas.

To rescue the holiday, there is a quest for the next must-have toy, which brings – at 164 days to Christmas – the arrival of Binky the Toy Tester (Kildall). Will the thingamajig pass muster? Will it matter?

This cast works together smoothly, and I was particularly impressed with Myers’ performance. The more dramatically inclined Mabbitt makes a great straight man to set up fellow goofballs. Scott’s ability to switch between clown and villain is fun to watch.

As we’ve come to expect from Defiance, this show is full of gut-splitting hilarity and features a number of improv veterans, so expect anything. Also as usual, there’s a bit of ribald innuendo, but aside from the “Naughty” edition 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, there is a “Nice” more all-ages version at 3 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 9-11).

See their style of wacky comedy that sells out Fringe festival shows, now in two full acts, at IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get tickets at indyfringe.org.

OnyxFest: Black is My Color

This play is part of OnyxFest 2022, a production of Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) and IndyFringe, “Indy’s First and Only Theater Festival Dedicated to the Stories of Black Playwrights.” Initial performances were the weekend of Nov. 3-6 at the Basile Theatre in the IndyFringe building. The second weekend of performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at the IUPUI Campus Center Theater, 420 University Boulevard, Indianapolis. Recordings of performances will be available at ButlerArtsCenter.org. For more information, see OnyxFest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

In a bookstore and coffee shop called I Take It BLACK, two “sistahs” meet. The millennial (Paige Elisse) shares her personal frustrations with an older poet (Marlena Johnson), who shares the wisdom and verse of Mari Evans.

“Who’s that?!” the young woman asks. 

For many of us watching “Black is my Color,” by journalist and playwright Celeste Williams, this is sadly a common question. Evans, who resided in Indianapolis until her death in 2017, was a world-renowned poet, author, and activist. Today, a full-body portrait of her looks down on us from a wall on Massachusetts Ave., but she is not as widely and readily known as other people so honored around Indy. This play helps to introduce us to the woman in the mural.

“Who can be born Black and not exult!” The young reader is puzzled at this declaration. To reach understanding, we step back in time to a cluttered living room where Evans (Ellen Price Sayles Lane) grants a rare interview. She seems to both resent and welcome being considered a “troublemaker” – “I look at everything through a Black lens.”

As Evans speaks, “Who I am is who I was at (age) 5,” her young spirit (Amani Muhammad) appears. She and Elisse dance to accompany the poetry. Evans speaks fondly of the lost community around Indiana Avenue, and frankly about her adopted hometown – “The contradictions are more seething here in Indianapolis.”

Directed by TaMara E’lan G. and Manon Voice, this show is a much-needed lesson in local history, especially of the lives and perspective of African Americans, as well as an insight into a brilliant woman who lived among us, dedicating her life to Black – and therefore human – empowerment. Lane as Evans radiates both power and a generous spirit, holding no malice but accepting no compromise. Muhammad and Elisse are an artful chorus of movement, and Johnson happily gives us entry to this important figure’s world.

As this work develops through its performances, hopefully we will see more of “Black is My Color” at future events.

OnyxFest: Houseless, not Homeless

This play is part of OnyxFest 2022, a production of Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) and IndyFringe, “Indy’s First and Only Theater Festival Dedicated to the Stories of Black Playwrights.” Initial performances were the weekend of Nov. 3-6 at the Basile Theatre in the IndyFringe building. The second weekend of performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at the IUPUI Campus Center Theater, 420 University Boulevard, Indianapolis. Recordings of performances will be available at ButlerArtsCenter.org. For more information, see OnyxFest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

There are hundreds of homeless people around the city, and in “Houseless, Not Homeless,” by Michael Florence, there are about as many stories of how each man, woman and child ended up that way. 

Matt (Dominique Hawkins) has a home and a job, but during his lunch hour at an inner-city park, he can’t help but notice those who don’t. He wonders why, and what he can do to help. So he approaches individuals who pique his interest (or maybe just bumps into) and in exchange for gift cards to a local restaurant, he gets their stories.

Matt meets Lonnie (George Gooding), a former Union plumber; Rita (Ronnie Watts), a young mother of two; Marine SSG Jackson (Quinton Hayden), an Afghanistan veteran with “emotional issues;” Pauline (Jetta Vaughn), a retired social worker who, ironically, used to work at a shelter; and John (Zach Dzuba), a former lawyer with a bipolar disorder.

Hawkins presents Matt as wide-eyed curious, and a bit naive, while the other actors play it understandably wary and suspicious before opening up to give us watching the answers we need to hear. Eric Washington directs.

Florence based this play on the real-life interviews by documentarian Mark Horvath featured on the YouTube channel “Invisible People,” now a 501(c)3 organization. We see in these portrayals how easily one can slip into losing it all, and how difficult it is to recover, even with limited resources. 

“You never know how many people are sleeping in their vehicles,” the Marine says, “until you sleep in yours.”

OnyxFest: Police State

This play is part of OnyxFest 2022, a production of Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) and IndyFringe, “Indy’s First and Only Theater Festival Dedicated to the Stories of Black Playwrights.” Initial performances were the weekend of Nov. 3-6 at the Basile Theatre in the IndyFringe building. The second weekend of performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at the IUPUI Campus Center Theater, 420 University Boulevard, Indianapolis. Recordings of performances will be available at ButlerArtsCenter.org. For more information, see OnyxFest.com.

By Wendy Carson

The saying, “An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth will lead to a world of the blind and toothless,” kept running through my head while watching “Police State,” written and directed by Rain Wilson. This play asks one of the most difficult questions of our current climate: What will it take to get people, especially police, to stop threatening and killing Black men out of fear of their skin color?

There is no easy answer. The scenario Wilson presents shows direct revenge is certainly not the solution, but what is?

The plot revolves around the death of a young man, *Amadi, shot in the back several times by a police officer while trying to walk home. B.J. (Atiyya Radford) tries to get his friend Mo (Deont’a Stark) to attend a justice rally he is organizing. Mo says the protest won’t solve anything and will probably lead to more violence at the hands of the police.

The victim’s father Abu (D’Anthony Massey) and mother Gloria (Shakisha Michelle) argue about how they should proceed in order to recompence their loss. Gloria knows that nothing will bring her son back, so in her eyes justice will never be gained. Abu feels that killing the officer responsible will show everyone that changes to the system need to be made, even declaring it a form of community “self defense.” His white brother-in-law Mark (Bryan Gallet) tries to be supportive but is no help at all, saying all the wrong (yet familiar sounding) things.

 I don’t want to spoil the ending but here’s what I can say: Much heated and important discussion occurs; another man dies; and no solution presents itself. 

Wilson’s story is tough to watch, as it evaluates much of the current ideology regarding this situation and clearly shows that there are no easy answers. However, it does offer a jumping off point in which to start a dialogue to try to find some beginning steps towards a solution.

*”Amadi” (primarily meaning “free man”) is fictional, but reminiscent of numerous victims of police violence. A quick web search by this name brought up Amadou Diallo, shot more than 40 times by New York police in 1999 when the unarmed man reached for his wallet. Also fresh in local memory is the killing by police of Dreasjon Reed in Indianapolis in 2020. Black lives matter.

OnyxFest: Majesties

This play is part of OnyxFest 2022, a production of Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) and IndyFringe, “Indy’s First and Only Theater Festival Dedicated to the Stories of Black Playwrights.” Initial performances were the weekend of Nov. 3-6 at the Basile Theatre in the IndyFringe building. The second weekend of performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at the IUPUI Campus Center Theater, 420 University Boulevard, Indianapolis. Recordings of performances will be available at ButlerArtsCenter.org. For more information, see OnyxFest.com.

By Wendy Carson

Women are creatures of spectacular power and ability. They can raise up or tear down those around them. Yet so many get caught up in the fallacy that their own worth is tangled up within their relationships with men. This was the message that I took away from “Majesties,” Charla Booth’s tale of three generations of women struggling with their past.

Leslie Moliere (Megan Simonton) is an aging singer, no longer booking performance dates as she’s considered by club owners to be past her prime. She also deals with the realization that she is alone because she has always been in love with one man and although they were almost married, he has done his best to torture her while knowing her feelings for him.

Andre (Daniel Martin) is not only the object of Leslie’s heart but also the father of Andrea (Shandrea Funnye), the product of a past fling who left them, whom he claims is only his niece, thus creating sorrow in her heart as well.

Gloria Jean (Katherine Adamou), a past schoolmate of Leslie and Andre, is dealing with her own lack of a man in her life, especially the negligent father of her own daughter.

Through careful calculation by a wise Wellness Center owner (Jamillah Gonzalez) and Gloria’s Mother (Brittany Taylor) these three women are brought together for a spa day in order to resolve their issues with each other as well as their own internal conflicts.

Simonton ably takes Leslie from haughty but sadly regretful of the choices that have led her to this end, while Adamou embodies the conflict of her constant love for her ex and well as the realization that this is a major part of why she can’t find someone new.

Martin, as adept at drama as his frequent comic turns, keeps his character aloof and slimy as Andre mentally abuses every woman in his path.

Taylor does a great job of managing to keep her character’s machinations subtle to make her presence almost a surprise when she shows up at the end, and Gonzalez perfectly embodies her shaman role.

Funnye amazes us by bringing forth the most heart-wrenching story of all, while showing the bravery and power of her character to overcome it all and persist in finding happiness. She also directs, superbly bringing these actors together to give us a show that brings you to tears, enrages you, and inspires you – without being overbearing or preachy.

OnyxFest: Your Love Will Be Judged

This play is part of OnyxFest 2022, a production of Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) and IndyFringe, “Indy’s First and Only Theater Festival Dedicated to the Stories of Black Playwrights.” Initial performances were the weekend of Nov. 3-6 at the Basile Theatre in the IndyFringe building. The second weekend of performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at the IUPUI Campus Center Theater, 420 University Boulevard, Indianapolis. Recordings of performances will be available at ButlerArtsCenter.org. For more information, see OnyxFest.com.

By Wendy Carson

In “Your Love Will Be Judged,” director and playwright Gabrielle Patterson takes us all to an alternate timeline where divorces are decided by a jury trial. We become privy to the deliberation of six jurors who each have their own strong ideas as to what choice will best satisfy the needs of an offstage couple.

Alicia Sims as Juror 2 feels that the whole thing is cut and dried, but aggressively argues with everyone regarding their choices and reasoning, sometimes nearly coming to blows – she is a sheer delight to watch every second. Haleigh Rigger brings a lot of charm as well as tone-deaf condescension to Juror 1’s “perfect housewife” character. Jacob Pettyjohn makes the “hit it and quit it” attitude of Juror 3 so slimy, you want to mop the floor after he passes. Rodney Smith as Juror 4 spectacularly brings out his character’s “old-school/back in my day” bluster. D’yshe Mansfield is masterfully mellow, filling Juror 5 with the distracted wisdom that only herbal enhancement can provide. Attempting to oversee and contain the varied personalities is Michael Martin Drain as the Foreman, showing all the resolve and exasperation that the position entails.

While, like Sims’ juror, you may feel that the verdict is obvious, the twists and turns of each player, as well as some prejudicial attitudes, will keep you guessing as to the outcome. This show is not only very funny, but also offers material for personal discussions of many of its topics for a good while afterwards.

OnyxFest: A Noise in the Attic

This play is part of OnyxFest 2022, a production of Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) and IndyFringe, “Indy’s First and Only Theater Festival Dedicated to the Stories of Black Playwrights.” Initial performances were the weekend of Nov. 3-6 at the Basile Theatre in the IndyFringe building. The second weekend of performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at the IUPUI Campus Center Theater, 420 University Boulevard, Indianapolis. Recordings of performances will be available at ButlerArtsCenter.org. For more information, see OnyxFest.com.

By Wendy Carson

Abuse of a loved one doesn’t have to be physical, success sours when it’s not shared, and sometimes things that go bump in the night aren’t so bad, as revealed in “A Noise in the Attic,” by OnyxFest executive producer Vernon A. Williams.

Mr. Adams (ShaQuan Davis) appears to be the perfect husband and father, appropriate for a lawyer with a promising political career. But his daughter Cathy (Vae Savage) is an absolute brat who gets anything she wants from him, including silent permission to bully her stepmother Rita (Selena Jackson-King).

This situation, and the fact that her own desires have to be put on the back burner yet again, has Rita frustrated beyond belief. Plus, rather than do it himself, Adams is making her search the attic to discover the source of the strange noise that has been occurring over the past week.

However, a chance encounter with down-on-his-luck singer Walker (Atiyyah Radford) helps put things into perspective, awakening Rita to the truth about herself and her situation.

In the end, everyone gets exactly what they deserve.

Jackson-King does a great job balancing her character’s compassion for Walker’s plight against her struggles with propriety and devotion to her family, brought to focus by aspiring poet/performer Rita’s brave verse. Davis brings forth all the slick, playboy moves to reflect his character’s selfish attitude towards women. Savage portrays Cathy’s attitude so well, you will fight the urge to show her discipline and what true respect is. With a wry smile, Radford brings us the story of someone struggling his way to the top; his aspirations were crushed by the Pandemic, but not his spirit.

Angela Wilson-Holland is a comical delight as Rita’s Aunt Helen, who tries to talk her out of an obviously crazy plan. Jamillah Gonzalez does a great job of portraying Adams’ secretary, looking to make moves of her own.

Director Debora Farrell has done an excellent job of bring William’s script to life, making each character so realistic you will revel in the karma of the climax, as well as the revelation of what exactly is in the attic.

Bard Fest: Merrily we ROFL along

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

By John Lyle Belden

It is said that Queen Elizabeth I was quite taken with the character of Sir John Falstaff in William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” (Parts I and II). This merry prankster would end up as much the butt of the joke as the instigator, and helps humanize Prince Hal, the eventual King Henry V. So, legend goes, Her Majesty ordered Shakespeare to whip up a play featuring the bawdy knight in love.

The result, by whatever origin, is “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” now presented at the IndyFringe Theatre, directed by Jeff Bick. The comedy is presented in an over-the-top style that common folk who paid a penny to see a show around the year 1600 would have loved. Sir John (Thomas Sebald), who appears to have a beach ball for a belly, is less interested in “sack” wine and more contemplating what middle-aged women he can get in the sack, so to speak.

This production focuses on two comic plotlines. True to the Bard’s penchant for including a wedding in his comedies, young beauty Anne Page (Sophie Peirce) is being wooed by three men: Slender (Ben Elliot), the doltish son of Justice Swallow (Michael Bick), who in turn is friends with Anne’s dad, Master Page (Tom Smith); the very French doctor Caius (Rian Capshew), who has the approval of Mistress Page (Dana Lesh); and young gentleman Fenton (Connor Phelan), whom Anne comes to prefer despite his having the lightest purse.

The other source of drama and mirth is, of course, Falstaff. He covets not one man’s wife, but two, and sends his squire Robin (Lyndsi Wood) with identical letters to Mistress Page and Mistress Ford (Kelly BeDell). The women being best friends, this attempted courtship will backfire in spectacular fashion. Master Page has no doubt his headstrong wife can take care of herself, but Master Ford (John Johnson) is more wary, and goes to Falstaff disguised as fellow lothario “Brook” to get in on the plot.

“Hilarity ensues” is putting it mildly. Much boisterous laughter was had throughout the audience. Adding to the fun in supporting roles are Angela Dill as busily devious servant Mistress Quickly and Ryan Shelton as thick-tongued Welsh vicar Sir Hugh Evans. Other servants are portrayed by Colby Rison, Nelani Huntington, Carolyn Jones and Patrick Lines.

Sebald ably plays the buffoon under the delusion of dignity. Lesh and Bedell are the stars here, with Lucy-and-Ethel chemistry as they gain the upper hand on all the men. Johnson is goofy fun, letting himself be the second-biggest fool on the stage.

And the antics of the Falstaff plot eventually work to resolve the romantic storyline. Shakespeare’s clever like that.

For an evening of silly fun – which includes, just in time for Halloween, a spooky Faerie encounter – meet the Merry Wives this Friday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis.

IndyFringe: Oh Look, It’s Magic!

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

By John Lyle Belden

Jordan Allen has been an awesome presence at this year’s IndyFringe. The magician has been around the festival all three weekends, doing a little bit of busking, and a lot of attending and talking up other performers’ shows. So, it’s only fair we say a bit about his own performance, which ran the third weekend (Sept. 1-3) at the main-floor stage at the Athenaeum.

“Oh Look, It’s Magic: ADHD Advocacy Show” combines a lot of clever tricks with an honest first-person account of growing up – and living with – Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, which is a real disability, and not something one grows out of (“I wish,” Allen adds). He notes that aside from Houdini’s maxim that magic not only amuses and amazes, but also awakens hope, he feels it can also educate and advocate.

In that vein, Allen maintains a show that is family friendly, and accommodating to all neural patterns. He patiently grins through impulsive outbursts, and gives the neurodivergent their own moments of wonder – as well as to audience members of any brain, even silly folk like me.

It’s cards, ropes, scarves, stories, balls, cups, hope, ripped paper, flashes of color, moments of comedy, and a kind reminder that none of us are alone, if we’re open to life’s magic. And it’s a work in progress, so watch for its next return by following “Jordan Allen – Magician” on Facebook or visiting jallenexperience.com.