IndyFringe: The Madwomen’s Late-Nite Cabaret

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

From the moment that Lizzie Borden (Cody Ricks) dashes across stage to take her seat at the piano, you know that this show is anything but serious.

We then welcome our beloved hostess Ethel Merman (Dave Ruark hamming it up at his best) straight from her triumphant turn as “Annie”.

Throughout the night we are privy to songs revealing aspects of these historical icons who are more misunderstood than evil.

Shawnte Gaston has a quick turn as Medusa but spends most of the show co-hosting as Eve, the embodiment of maternal energy and possibly the most misrepresented of them all. She belts out her sentiments in both “What’s the Matter With Kids Today” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Julie Lyn Barber embodies women as diverse as Typhoid Mary, Amelia Earhart, and Mary Stuart but she really stands out as Sybil singing “I Am My Own Best Friend”.

Georgeanna Smith Wade gives us a hilarious look into the mindset of Procne (most people know her as Medea) but it is her sultry version of Mata Hari performing “Bang, Bang” that really shines.

Add to this Jaddy Ciucci (although on the performance I saw this role was played by Devan Mathias), portraying not only Joan of Arc, Philomela, and Ann Boleyn, but a “Physical Embodiment of a Controlled Substance” (Mary Jane) and pleadingly insisting “I’d Be Good For You”

Needless to say, these women (and characters) deserve to be seen and heard and who knows when you will get another chance to do so. Presented by Main Street Artists, remaining performances are 9 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 Sunday at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

Phoenix goes bananas for ‘Xmas’

By John Lyle Belden

You know, it’s just not Christmas season without a visit from Anna Banana!

..Said no one ever. (But don’t tell Anna!) Now that she’s the fourth-most-popular female holiday icon (since most people can’t think of more than three) she gets to host “A Very Phoenix Xmas 13: Merry Superstitious” at the Phoenix Theatre.

As you can already tell, the oddball tone of the previous 12 incarnations of this holiday tradition is still very much alive. However, this edition — directed by quirky Q Artistry founder Ben Asaykwee — features an all-female cast. Past Phoenix stars Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Phebe Taylor, Jaddy Ciucci and Jenni White are joined by Shawnte P. Gaston, the powerhouse presence of Tiffanie Burnett, the instrumental prowess of Beef & Boards regular Sarah Hund and the manic energy of ComedySportz star Frankie Bolda.

While they all play multiple roles, it’s Bolda in the banana outfit, and Ciucci makes a feisty Virgin Mary. But while the comedy is a bit irreverent, the content doesn’t get sacrilegious or too mature. Something amiss does happen to Santa, though, that reverberates through the show.

The series of sketches has numerous authors, including Asaykwee, Jean Childers-Arnold, Lou Harry, Steven Korbar,  Zack Neiditch, and Steffi Rubin. Mariel Greenlee choreographed a touching dance scene, performed by the ensemble, inspired by a historic holiday event.

There are also witches, a history lesson, a look back at a (sorta) famous kick-line, breaking news, surprising mashups, and (in Harry’s contribution) what could be described as “Law & Order: Scriptural Victims Unit.” Plus, the cast tell us what’s on their wish list this season.

For an unusual — What other Christmas show has a talking banana? — funny and fully entertaining holiday treat, check out this “Very Phoenix Xmas,” with performances through Dec. 23 on the mainstage at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

‘Cabaret Poe’ right at home on yet another stage

By John Lyle Belden

For those who know of “Cabaret Poe,” the musical exploration of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems by Ben Asaykwee and presented by his Q Artistry productions, know that it has returned for its 10th year with its premiere with the Phoenix Theatre on its black-box Basile stage — complete with a couple of tweaks to adapt to its space and keep it fresh.

For those who have not yet seen it, this is a perfect opportunity to experience what is becoming a local fall tradition. It started a decade ago in haunted Irvington, and has since moved to Mass. Ave. and even Circle Centre Mall. Now, in partnership with the Phoenix, it and other Q Artistry works have a new home.

Asaykwee is Zolius, the gaunt acerbic leader of his little band, including fair ladies Morella and Berenice, and a mysterious Shadow that haunts the proceedings. He also has a small four-piece orchestra to provide music and much of the atmosphere. Our women are dual-cast; depending on the performance, you may see original performers Renae Stone as Morella and Julie Lyn Barber as Berenice, or Georgeanna Smith Wade and Jaddy Ciucci respectively.

They prefer you experience the suspense of not knowing what comes next, so there is no set published program, and I won’t spoil that here. Just know that many favorites will be recited and acted out, including “The Tell-tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and, of course, “The Raven.”

Rebekah Taylor slinks her way around the stage as the silent Shadow, and even gets to interpret one piece in a featured dance.

There are a few moments of audience interaction, so it truly is a little different at each performance. Changes to the set include lights embedded in the crypt-stage, used to good effect. Asaykwee’s style and his contributions to Poe’s words add clever dark humor, making for a thoroughly entertaining evening. There are no major scares, just a spooky atmosphere, and TV-PG language so this show is good for tweens and older.

Tickets have been selling briskly, so act fast. The show runs through Nov. 4 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Help pick the killer du jour at ATI’s ‘Drood’

By John Lyle Belden

Regardless of if you’d consider a murder mystery fun, you are bound to get a kick out of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through May 13 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The biggest mystery of the story is how it ends. Charles Dickens died while writing it, with no definitive clues left as to his intended perpetrator, or even if Drood actually dies.

In this Broadway musical, written by Rupert Holmes, we witness a Victorian-era comic troupe bring the story to life, while letting the audience vote to settle questions such as the identity of the killer. True to English music hall “panto” tradition, the lead male is played by a woman, we are encouraged to “boo-hiss” the villain, and silliness could break out at any time.

ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins takes on the title character, a bright, likable gentleman engaged to the lovely Rosa Bud (Harli Cooper) since they were children. Drood’s uncle, church choirmaster John Jasper (Eric Olson) wants to possess Rosa – or at least one of his personalities does. Meanwhile, the Rev. Crisparkle (Darrin Murrell), has arrived from Ceylon with the Landless twins: Neville (Logan Moore), a hot-tempered young man who also feels desire for Rosa, and Helena (Jaddy Ciucci), who worries about Neville’s temper while otherwise acting exotic and downright mysterious. We also meet Durdles (John Vessels), the good-natured gravedigger; opium-den matron Princess Puffer (Judy Fitzgerald), whose customers include Jasper; Mr. Bazzard (Paul Collier Hansen), played by a man always up for minor parts; and Flo (Karaline Feller), who is, well, pretty. We are guided through this cast and story with the help of The Chairman (T.J. Lancaster), who also has to pitch in for an absent actor.

In scenes laced with cheeky humor and song, clues are dropped and a minor bit of tension raised as the story leads up to Drood’s disappearance. Then more revelations are made as an obviously-disguised person appears as private eye Dick Datchery. But soon, the lights go up as the Chairman notes that this is as far as the Dickens text goes. Who’s who and what’s what? Time to vote! (Note this election is not rigged; any of several suspects could be selected and can be different from one performance to the next.)

Performances are great all around. Lancaster is an excellent guide, while Collins holds the center well. Meanwhile, Olson plays a cruel maniac so well, it just seems too obvious to consider him the killer! The show has a great music hall feel, with the musicians at the back of center stage, and appropriate look thanks to designer P. Bernard Killian, complemented by costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck.

I’ve used “fun” a lot to describe recent plays, but it certainly applies here in a style that feels more intimate and engaging for the audience in the Studio Theater’s black-box style space. As one only has to applaud their choice or turn in a ballot from a pre-printed list, it’s not too involved an “audience participation” situation, yet you do feel like part of the festivities, making for a fully satisfying theatrical experience – even if your candidate for murderer doesn’t get chosen.

Get information and tickets at www.atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

‘Cabaret Poe’ returns with new site, fresh look and familiar chills

By John L. Belden and Wendy Carson

Quoth Wendy:

You always know that Halloween is approaching when Q Artistry launches its annual production of “Cabaret Poe.” This is not to disparage the show in any way – even after almost 10 years of shows, the audiences are still enthralled by it. In fact, a patron behind me was proudly seeing the show for the sixth time and still loved it just as much as the first.

This year’s show does mark another change of venue, this time in a small alcove on the fourth floor of Circle Centre Mall (in the heart of downtown Indy). Upon first entering the space, it seems very cramped and awkward. However, the company has turned this on its ear with inventive staging.

No longer do cast members leave the stage when not actively performing; instead they seat themselves throughout the crowd and become part of the audience, observing the spectacle themselves. By utilizing the whole space as their stage, and with the addition of projection screens, they assure that there is not a bad seat in the house.

I was also quite impressed by the unique lighting effects utilized by designer Brent Wunderlich. From innovatively turning their black and grey hues to purples, to bathing the audience in a rainbow of colors during “Masque of the Red Death.”

Quoth John:

Oops, sorry Ben!  — Show creator Ben Asaykwee likes keeping it a surprise which of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems he has adapted for the evening’s Cabaret, and in which order. But it won’t give too much away to say that some pieces can be expected to appear, like the one about a heart that tells tales, or the quest for a rare cask of Spanish wine, or a certain obnoxious black bird…

Asaykwee presents it all with his catchy inventive songs, infused with dark humor, such as “Buried Alive,” “Dark (The Pit and the Pendulum),” and the recurring title theme. He also stars as one of three performer/narrators, the smugly sour Zoilus. His accomplices are two women, Morella and Berenice. On opening night, they were played by Julie Lyn Barber, a Cabaret Poe player since its first year, and Georgeanna Smith Wade, a first-timer in this revue, but no stranger to the strange as a major player in the NoExit troupe. Some performances feature Q Artistry veterans Renae Stone and Jaddy Ciucci in the ladies’ roles. In addition, a ghostly dancing shadow is perfectly silently executed by Rebekah Taylor – she even gets a solo scene.

The lighting effects, projections, and shadow puppetry are new for this year, fitting seamlessly into the narratives and reducing the need for physical props. But then, the players do have us, the audience, to play with.

Quoth Wendy:

With the changes made, this was my favorite version of the show. “Cabaret” implies an intimacy different from other kinds of productions, and this presented it more effectively that in past shows.

Concludeth John:

So, it’s both old and new, familiar and surprising – like a 21st-century musical based on a nineteenth century writer. Performances run through Oct. 29. Get info and tickets at qartistry.org.

Review: Not your kids’ puppet show

By John Lyle Belden

In “Hand to God,” the outrageous comedy on stage at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre through July 17, it takes a possibly-possessed hand puppet to show the inner demons in all of us.

Just be warned: Though this play is set at a church, and involves youths working on a puppet show, it is most definitely NOT for children. For content, language and sex, this is very much an “R” rated event, and not for easily-offended churchgoers.

Jason (Nathan Robbins) and his mother Margery (Angela R. Plank) work through their grief at losing his father/her husband by putting on a puppet show at church at the suggestion of Pastor Greg (Paul Nicely), who has the hots for the new widow. The other kids in the puppet ministry, Timothy (Adam Tran) and Jessica (Jaddy Ciucci), are barely cooperative. But things really get out of hand (pardon the pun) when Jason’s puppet Tyrone starts speaking out. In expletive-loaded bursts, he says what others are only thinking, and then some. Jason sees the danger, but it’s too late, as after Tyrone is supposedly destroyed he comes back – with teeth.

Possibly coincidentally, these characters start acting way out of their comfort zone – including acts that would in the real world end in arrest. One can then wonder, to what extent do we think “the devil made them do it,” or was it just hidden desires suddenly given license? It’s telling that Jessica’s desperate ploy to get past Jason’s cloth alter-ego to reach the real boy she cares for involves one of the most shocking yet funny scenes of the play.

For wild can’t-believe-I’m-laughing-at-this hilarity and thought-provoking drama, this show is highly recommended. But even more amazing is the ability Robbins – a confessed puppetry novice – shows in displaying two completely separate characters, making Tyrone in voice and manner seem like a whole other person, despite being at the end of the arm of the helpless, scared boy coincidentally moving his lips.

This is likely not the first review of this play you’ve seen; the run started in June. But let me add to the chorus of satisfied audiences saying – if you’re not too easily offended – you really should see “Hand to God” at the Phoenix, 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair just north of Mass. Ave.). Call 317-635-7529 or see www.phoenixtheatre.org.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)

After TOTS triumph, Asaykwee continues dark path

By John Lyle Belden

If you missed the recent run of the Tracy Letts drama “Killer Joe” at Theatre on the Square, it’s understandable. Sellouts were common, even with an additional performance added.

Still, you would have missed one heck of a show. The raw impact of the story of a redneck Texas family hiring a hitman to kill one of its members, with the titular character agreeing to take the young woman of the family as a “security deposit,” was enforced by a top-shelf cast – including local stage veterans Dan Scharbrough, Nate Walden, Lisa Marie Smith and Jaddy Ciucci.

But the most triumphant performance was by Ben Asaykwee as Joe. For those who only know his work with darkly comic characters – like the many he developed as founder of Q Artistry and shows like “Cabaret Poe” – his chilling transformation into the no-nonsense Texas hitman bordered on shocking. With surprisingly little effort, he projected menace and put us all on notice that his true range and depth is much greater than many ever suspected.

This weekend, TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis, opened the classic Stephen Sondheim musical, “Passion,” playing weekends through March 26. (See www.tots.org.)

Meanwhile, Asaykwee has left downtown and set his sights on entertaining us with the story of an actual killer.

Apparently unafraid of ghosts – working as he has for the past several years in former Masonic Lodge 666 in the haunted neighborhood of Irvington – Asaykwee, with megatalent Claire Wilcher, present “White City Murder,” a new musical based on the exploits of America’s first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes, performed just blocks away from where Holmes briefly lived and is believed to have killed at least one child, who is said to still haunt the home.

The musical runs March 18-20, March 26 and March 31-April 2 at the lodge, 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. It’s plot concerns the “murder hotel” where dozens of young women disappeared during the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair. The events are recounted in the book “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson, which tells of Holmes’ many murders to collect on victims’ insurance and the building he had constructed to make the process of killing and disposal more efficient.

If anyone can set such a macabre topic to music in an entertaining fashion, it’s Asaykwee – who has already succeeded with the works of Edgar Alan Poe and writing an opera about the tragic Donner Party. And if anyone can help make such an odd show work, it’s Wilcher, who just helped co-write “Babes in Toyland,” is a comic legend with 3-Dollar Bill and ComedySportz, and gave brilliant performances in musicals including “Cabaret” and “Man of LaMancha.”

Find ticket information at www.qartistry.org, or follow “Qartistry” on Facebook.

(This story also posted on The Word.)