Experience Venice through the eyes of its visitors in IRT’s ‘Appoggiatura’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre play “Appoggiatura,” by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still, is a “Venecia story:” A story of Venice, Italy.

Venice, the centuries-old artistically and architecturally rich city of gondola-filled canals, is a unique place, and it can’t help but become a character in any story set there. I understand this, because I once spent the day there; so I, too, have a Venecia story – but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

This play is also the third in Still’s loose “trilogy” involving characters related to a man named Jack, who died on 9/11. But this is not about him, except that relatives give brief mention in the way you can’t help but talk of someone you loved so dearly and lost so tragically. And it is not at all in the same style as the two previous plays: “The House That Jack Built” (premiered by IRT in 2012), a family drama set around a New England Thanksgiving table; or “Miranda” (on the IRT upperstage last year), a spy thriller set in Yemen. This play truly is, you must understand, a Venecia story.

Venice is not only rich in art, architecture and history, but also in music. The strains of violin and operatic voices are performed throughout this show, framing and accentuating scenes (yet this is not a musical) with a masqued man who might even be the spirit of Venice-born composer Vivaldi. Venice is a city of patient natives and multitudes of tourists, which our characters can’t help but bump into. It is a city of labyrinthine narrow streets between the canals, so that the directions of “go right, go left, go straight, go straight” will take you virtually anywhere, especially to the centrally-located world-famous Piazza San Marco.

In this setting, we meet Helen (Susan Pellegrino) and her grown granddaughter (and Jack’s daughter), Sylvie (Andrea San Miguel), who arrive in Venice on a rainy night with luggage missing and their rooms not ready. They are accompanied by Aunt Chuck (Tom Aulino), who is definitely not happy with the way things are turning out. But he also still feels the loss of his husband, Gordon, who had previously been Helen’s husband.

The next morning, they are greeted by their “tour-guider,” Marco (Casey Hoekstra), who reassures them that they and their luggage being lost is only part of their Venecia story, which they will eventually come to treasure. As it turns out, Marco isn’t much of a “guider,” but still a good man to have around.

As she wanders the city, Helen is reminded of her own previous Venecia story, crossing a bridge into the past and encounters with a young Helen and Gordon (San Miguel and Hoekstra) on their honeymoon. Chuck also finds echoes of the man he loved at a Venecian fountain. The blending of time and space, especially when 21st-century technology gets mixed in, would be concerning to a hard-core sci-fi fan, but this is a romantic tale – and no dangerous side effects of paradox seem to take place.

Still’s characters are charming and likeable, even the extras (performed by wandering musicians Andrew Mayer, Paul Deboy and Katrina Yaukey) such as a man (Deboy) walking and singing to his two (puppet) dogs – based on a memory from Still’s own personal Venecia story. San Miguel plays her Millennial character as impatient, searching and a bit cynical, but not whiny; a measure of how much we care for Sylvie is that we understand her perspective during a heated Skype conversation with her fiance (Yaukey) in the States. Pellegrino and Aulino touch our hearts as two people united by their longing for the same man, each taking an opposite approach: she always sunny, he ever under a cloud. Hoekstra’s Marco is eager and a bit of a hustler, but with an easily detected good heart.

As Venice is a literal maze of history and blended eras, I can forgive fantasy elements that wouldn’t work as well in other settings. And, while I know a trilogy is supposed to be just three stories, I feel that there should be a follow-up with what happens between Sylvia and her beloved in Vermont. It is refreshing to see a story with elements of same-sex love that never dwells on it; it’s just a part of normal relationships. And it is notable that in the 20-teens, references to 9/11 no longer shock, yet retain their sting. I must also note how truly funny this play is at various points, but it’s not a full-on “comedy,” just a lifelike reflection of both the comic/drama masks we all wear.

Otherwise, this is a hard show to critique, as its blend of music, drama, love, and comic moments stands alone and could only be categorized as – dare I say it again: A Venecia story.

Save the cost of airfare to Italy and head downtown to 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Performances are through March 31. 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.