We’ve got a hot lead on a play at the Fringe

By John Lyle Belden

New local company Fat Turtle Theatre makes a bold debut with its production of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the Pulitzer-winning drama by David Mamet, directed by company co-founder Aaron Cleveland.

For those unfamiliar, the play is about real estate salesmen in a high-pressure Chicago office in the early 1980s. For those who have seen the 1992 film, note that Blake (a/k/a “F— You,” played by Alec Baldwin) was a part written for the movie, and does not appear in the play. One can presume, prior to the opening scene, that Blake already made his famous speech that the bosses have declared a sales contest with a Cadillac as first prize, and third place means you’re fired. The best sales leads are going to the best salesmen, and office manager Williamson (played here by Ryan Reddick) is in charge of doling them out.

The play opens with Williamson being berated and cajoled by past top-seller Shelly “the Machine” Levene (Doug Powers), who feels he deserves the top Glengarry leads. We next meet frustrated fellow salesmen Dave Moss (Luke McConnell) and George Aaronow (Jeff Maess), who consider more drastic measures to get ahead. Finally, we see top seller Richard Roma (Tristan Ross), working up to a sale with his latest mark, timid James Lingk (Rex Riddle).

The second act begins with the office having suffered a burglary, investigated by Detective Baylen (Jason Page). As the whole ensemble flows in and out of the room, the drama intensifies and we learn a lot more than who wins the new car.

Speaking of hot leads, these roles are among the most coveted among male actors when this play revives on Broadway, and Fat Turtle has found a worthy cast for the Indy boards. Powers gives his all in the most high-profile role, taking Shelly to every emotional extreme while staying believable and relatable.

Ross makes good use of his talent for Shakespearean patter to deliver Roma’s pseudo-philosophical soliloquies that he uses to lull prospective buyers into being receptive to his pitch. We can easily buy that this is the best man at selling patches of dirt to insecure souls with money.

Maess embodies the not-getting-any-younger quiet desperation of Aaronow, while McConnell expresses the more desperate and impulsive urge to get ahead at any cost.

Riddle does mouse-y well, and we can’t help but feel for him. Page’s performance just gets stronger as his character gets increasingly frustrated with the room full of patience-testing egos. Reddick’s Williamson is just an unapologetic a-hole, well played without compromise, and we have to respect him for that.

There’s a chuckle to be had here and there, and the marvelous absurdity of what grown men are willing to say to each other under stress – or just to keep a sucker in the sale. And, of course, be prepared for lots of salty language. This is drama at its best, a half-dozen men sweating out what could be one of the best or, more likely, worst days of their miserable lives. You owe it to yourself to close the sale on some tickets for this show before it closes on Oct. 15.

Performances are at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., just east of the College, Mass Ave., St. Clair intersection. Visit www.IndyFringe.org for tickets.

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IndyFringe: Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace

By John Lyle Belden

This is the kind of show you go to Fringe festivals for: Entertaining, immersive, funny – and you might win a prize!

Drag diva Betsy Carmichael is the self-proclaimed “First Lady of Bingo,” and for the most part the show has everyone in the audience playing rounds of the game, called by her accompanist Jerry Mosey as “Chip.” But she spices it up with planned responses to many of the numbers she gets everyone to call out. Or maybe she has a little story to tell. Or maybe some lucky “player” gets to craft a good-luck charm right on the stage. Whatever she’s up to, she’s always charming.

And be ready when the number called ends in 4: that’s “four – candy store,” when Betsy throws candy.

She only had three performances during the recently-concluded IndyFringe. Hopefully, since she hails from Chicago, she’ll make the trip back down again soon.

Info at www.BetsyBingo.com.

IndyFringe: ‘Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror’

By John Lyle Belden

These things happened.

We must never forget that. These things happened.

Jubilee, Mississippi, does not exist, and “Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror,” the short drama by Garret Mathews that had a run at the recent IndyFringe festival, is fiction, but racial strife and murderous bigotry in Mississippi in the 1960s were real. These things happened.

Kates (portrayed by Donovan Whitney) represents the various college students – black, like him, or even white – who volunteered as civil rights workers, helping disenfranchised Southern blacks to register and vote. People who put up with derision, verbal and even physical attacks, from white residents who declared them “outside agitators” and an enemy to society. People who landed in a Southern jail cell, like Kates, speaking on a college level with a cellmate who barely finished high school, only adding to the layers of difference between them, yet trying to hard to bridge.

These things happened.

Buell (Clay Mabbitt) represents the Southerners who don’t feel things are quite right, but it’s the world they were born into. Perhaps they play along because it keeps you out of trouble. Perhaps they find other ways to act out at the world, like getting drunk and attacking a traffic light, landing in jail next to this nig… this outsider.

These things happened.

Tadpole (Sam Fields) seems like an unreal stereotype, but we all know someone like him, and in the rural South 50 years ago, there weren’t public services to care for people with mental challenges, but local folks would adopt them and take care of them. But what if your caretaker is in jail?

These things happened.

Spottswood (Kevin C. Robertson) represents the face under the KKK hood, the men invested in the racist status quo, who didn’t even see non-whites as human. Men who not only defied the outsiders, but reveled in the fact that they could kill them, and likely never face justice.

These things happened.

The jail Guard (Dustin Miller) represented the common go-along/get-along citizen. They just don’t want trouble, and really don’t feel comfortable with strangers coming in and upsetting things.

These things happened.

These actors, under the direction of Susan Nieten, do an excellent job of breathing life into these archetypes, making them human – all human – and standing before us, bringing the arguments and ideas of the time to life, presenting “all sides” better than the bluster of a present-day politician reveals. They bring to life Mathews’ imagined scenes, based on numerous interviews of people who were there, in real Southern towns.

These things happened.

And when you see this show, wherever it next gets staged – and you should – even with a different cast and director, and you see what its events lead to, remember:

These things happened.

For information on the inspiration for “Jubilee” visit Mathews’ website, www.pluggerpublsihing.com.

IndyFringe: Neil Tobin, Necromancer: Near Death Experience

By John Lyle Belden

Now that the 2017 IndyFringe festival is done, we all have plenty of time to contemplate our mortality. Fortunately, we got a start on that during the Fringe with Neil Tobin, self-proclaimed Necromancer, and his show, “Near Death Experience.”

Despite his magical title, Tobin doesn’t bring anyone back from the dead (except, maybe, himself – and he did invite us along). But he is a magician, who employs tricks to enhance his talk on facing your future end by living in the here and now.

Illusionists often project an air of mystery, and Tobin exploits this trait to add to the show’s atmosphere. The intimate confines of the downstairs stage at the Phoenix Theatre – a former church building with its own dark history and uncertain future – already give a sense that the veil between life and what comes next is thin. In this supernatural air, his mastery over a small piece of reality – Is this the word you saw and kept to yourself? It is! – makes him our guide to the unknown.

Tobin doesn’t give us The Answers, but perhaps better questions, presenting the irony that by recognizing that death eventually comes, we can accept that life has already arrived. Meanwhile, we get to marvel at some slight-of-hand and sleight-of-mind, delivered with appropriately dark humor.

I add that the more uncertain you feel about the topic of death and dying – the closer you’ve felt to mortality for yourself or a loved one – the more this exercise in morbid optimism is recommended.

Tobin plans to make the experience even more immersive with site-specific performances at funeral homes and cemetery chapels, but your bravery will be rewarded. Discover the beauty of our eternal gardens, and our duty to make the most of time remaining above the sod.

Find information on shows and performances at www.neardeathx.com.

IndyFringe: ‘The Pink Hulk’

By John Lyle Belden

(Yes, I know the 2017 Fringe Festival is over, but the shows move on to points elsewhere, and sometimes return for limited engagements at the IndyFringe theatre building. And if you have been referred here by a link or blurb — welcome! — read on:)

After beating cancer, Valerie David felt heroic. When cancer returned years later, she had to be superheroic.

But she was angry at having to endure chemotherapy again, and at the changes that  treatment would make to her life and her body, especially after exposure to radioactive rays, so her comic-book persona was clear — David (not-Banner) is The (Pink) Hulk!

Being a lymphoma survivor (as Valerie was, in her first found with cancer), I was glad to see that this narrative was about more than breast cancer. However, the fact that the second time was in the breast added a new dimension to her struggle.

The disease not only threatened her life, but how she felt about herself as a woman. Could anyone truly love her or be intimate with her after the disease had taken its toll?

Valerie relates the story of her journey and eventual triumph with frankness and humor — two of the best weapons one can muster against cancer. And most inspiring, she takes on the disease on her own terms: For instance, if she must lose her hair, she sets the date for it to be shorn off and invites her friends to make it a party.

That frankness — about both the disease and the sex life it’s potentially ruining — also makes this a show for mature audiences. But for anyone teenage and up, especially those who know first- or second-hand the difficulties of dealing with cancer, this hero’s journey is equal parts inspirational and fun.

Find The Pink Hulk’s adventures here.

IndyFringe: ‘A Fatal Step’

By John Lyle Belden

How can I add to all the praise heaped upon Jill Vice, the star of the one-woman noir, “A Fatal Step”? Let’s just say it’s well deserved.

Vice performs all the characters in a dark tale suited to old-time radio or dime novels, but set in modern times. A beautiful woman whose devotion edges into manipulation commits everything to a man who finds more gentle and genuine affection with a plain-looking woman he works with; this will not end well.

Vice’s delivery maintains suspense while slipping in the punch lines, making for a thoroughly entertaining experience — and it doesn’t hurt that she’s as lovely and charming as her main character. Still, as she slips from persona to persona, she masters her expression to make all her roles, male and female, distinct.

Yes, add us to her fan club! John & Wendy encourage you to take “A Fatal Step” at 7:30 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 27) at the Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.com.

IndyFringe: ‘Canvas’

By John Lyle Belden

Standard disclaimer: I’ve known Casey Ross for years and love everything she does. So I can’t help but recommend this show, with a small caveat (see below).

“Canvas” is the third chapter of Ross’s trilogy that began with “Gallery” and continued with “Portraits” – both past Fringe shows. If you haven’t seen them, this play is still easy to follow, and a quick synopsis of the first two is in the program.

The story again focuses on two artists, best friends Jackson (Davey Pelsue) and Frank (Dave Ruark). In the past, free-spirit Jackson leaned on solid academic Frank, but now their situation is reversed as Jackson, a successful painter, cares for Frank, who has partial amnesia after an “accidental” drug overdose.

Once again, they struggle to define their relationship as each deeply loves the other, but the fact that one is straight and the other gay further complicates their feelings and actions. Their friends try to help, but have been burned by dysfunctional relationships with these two and can only do so much.

There is dark humor, raw emotion, and – my one caution – a frank examination of suicide. No easy answers are given, though this play does draw the trilogy to a conclusion.

Between Ross’s knack for sharp dialogue and a solid job by the actors, this play has earned its place as one of the hottest tickets at the Fringe. Get them if you can for performances Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25-26 ,at Theatre on the Square’s second stage.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.org.