IRT opens ‘Angry’

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a hot summer night, and what will happen in this room will have life and death consequences for someone you’ve never met.

Welcome to “Twelve Angry Men,” the classic American drama by Reginald Rose opening the 2019-2020 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre. Set in 1957, this play is both very much of its time, and timeless. The struggles and society these dozen characters deal with are every bit as real today as they were then.

Our 12-man jury is tasked with deciding the fate of a young man accused of murder. If the verdict is guilty, the death penalty will be applied. The men are all from different backgrounds, working class to rich. Though all white, they have roots in different ethnicities. 

The jury foreman (Seth Andrew Bridges) calls for a preliminary vote. Since the result seemed so obvious during the trial, all vote “Guilty” — except for one (Chris Amos). Why? He doesn’t want a rush to judgement, he says, and besides, he has some questions.

For the next hour-plus (the play is a single movie-length act) we hear the details of the case, presenting the murder mystery in nearly enough detail to give the audience a vote. 

The men arguing are all sharply acted, under the direction of James Still, giving dimension to their archetypes: Scott Greenwell as mousey, yet wanting to see justice done; Craig Spidle as one easily convinced of the evil “kids these days” can do; Henry Woronicz as a rich broker who wants to see the facts as plain and ordered as the newspaper he reads; Demetrios Troy as a man with more in common with the defendant than he’d like to admit; Casey Hoekstra as a laborer whose work ethic informs his judgement; Michael Stewart Allen as a loud Yankees fan (he wants the deliberations done in time to go to a game) who sounds more certain than he actually is; Mark Goetzinger as an older gentleman struggling to bring perspective to the proceedings; Robert Jerardi as a bigot determined to see “one of them” condemned; Patrick Clear as an immigrant excited to exercise his new citizenship; Charles Goad as an ad man who can’t help playing both sides; Bridges’ foreman, whose skills as a high school coach come into play; and Amos’ holdout, the conscience of the play and principal driver of the “reasonable doubt” that can turn the verdict around. Adam O. Crowe plays the Guard stationed outside the jury room door. 

Most people know, or can easily guess, the outcome of this drama. What is important, and makes this engrossingly entertaining, is how they get there. The knife, the steps, the glasses, all the clues and what they suggest, making for an intense 100 minutes. And the title is apt: these men get plenty angry — including at each other.

The stage set, designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee, is a masterwork, including a washroom to the side that can be made to be seen through screens when needed, as some juror discussions take place privately. The custom-made long wooden jurors’ table sits upon a turntable that slowly moves at times to aid our perspective of the deliberations. And at moments an actor might step away from the churning motion to demonstrate his seeking clarity. 

While the idea seemed gimmicky, the turning table is not constant, and thus works to great effect. Still notes this aspect of the stage was discussed early on in the production. “You mostly just have 12 men sitting around a table,” he said. “We needed something dynamic.”

The deliberations continue through Sept. 29 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, by Circle Centre. Info and tickets at http://www.irtlive.com.

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IndyFringe: And Then They Came For Me

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 John Lyle Belden

The Carmel High School theater program — practically a professional company, considering the quality of its shows — presents this historical drama, written by James Still (playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre).

Consider it a companion piece to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as it relates the stories of people who knew her, but with events she couldn’t have known about while in hiding. The focus is on two young people — Eva Geiringer and Helmuth Silberberg — whom we know much about because they survived the Holocaust. The acted scenes are intercut with audio and video footage of these two from recent interviews.

The student actors give stunning performances: Maddie Nagel as Eva, with Austin Audia, Kelsey McShay and Luke Vreeman as her family; Ryan Yauger as “Hello” Silberberg, with Kate Barthuly and Jack Sullivan as his parents; and Emily Chrzanowski as Anne, looking like she just stepped out of one of the old photographs. Sullivan also has the unfortunate but important role of a Nazi Youth, showing the contrast of the regular German’s life of indoctrination and exploitation of his naive faith in the Reich.

The narrative itself is riveting, with events of miraculous survival, as well as stories of those who perished so close to their potential liberation.

Direction is by Maggie Cassidy, with student assistants Madi Diehl (sound), Delaney Kibler (costumes and lights) and Gabrielle Marshall (projection, poster and logo design).

To see both the future of Indiana theatre, and a stark reminder of humanity’s past, remaining performances are 10:30 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair.

Challenges of modern farm life in Still’s ‘Amber Waves’ at IRT

By John Lyle Belden

The story of the Olson family of rural Indiana is like that of many farmers across America, which is part of what makes “Amber Waves” by James Still such an important play.

Mr. Still, the playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, where this drama plays on the upperstage through April 28, took inspiration from his own upbringing on a Kansas farm, which his family has since lost.

The Olsons face the very real danger of losing what generations of kin had built, even as they witness an old friend’s farm, and its family’s possessions, going up for auction. Mike (Torsten Hillhouse), the only one of the “Olson boys” to stay on the farm, tries to only think of what chores and repairs must be done in the coming days, to keep the faith that it will be enough, and to search the skies for long-overdue rain.

Mike’s wife, Penny (Mary Bacon), is totally devoted both to her husband and their vocation. She largely succeeds in staying positive, even as unpaid bills pile up, but teenage son Scott (William Brosnahan) and 12-year-old daughter Deb (Jordan Pecar) become increasingly aware that something’s wrong.

Much of the story involves Deb’s point of view. She works for elderly neighbor Johnny Apple (Charles Dumas), who always seems to find more odd jobs for her to do, giving her a few more much-needed dollars. Her situation also strains her relationship with best friend, Julie (Riley Iaria), from a more wealthy family. Meanwhile, life goes on, with the County Fair, school activities, the Homecoming game — normal aspects of country living.

The atmosphere is made complete with music and songs by Tim Grimm and Jason Wilber, performed onstage by Grimm and Rachel Eddy.

First performed in 2000, the play has been updated, including tech references, but the core story is as current now as it was then. There is even a mention of recent tariffs affecting crop prices. It tugs at the heartstrings in a genuine manner, as we see a family experience what feels like a lifetime in a single year.

Directed by Lisa Rothe, the performances feel natural, like these actors truly are family, or that Hillhouse really stepped off a tractor before coming onstage. Bacon is outstanding as a mother finding the multiple roles of a farm wife almost overwhelming, but persevering through willpower and love.

The simple wooden stage set and old latch-handle refrigerator at the back suggest a timeless, well-worn comfortable setting (kudos to scenic designer Narelle Sissons). Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger makes clever use of glass-jar lighting. Grimm grounds this production with his music, singing and connection to the original production; Eddy provides a perfect compliment, an Appalachian virtuoso of various string instruments, and a beautiful voice.

The IRT is located at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, near Circle Centre. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Observe a witness to history at the IRT

By John Lyle Belden

An exceptional treat for theatre fans and history buffs, the James Still masterpiece, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” has returned to the Indiana Repertory Theatre through May 6.

Aspiring opera singer – and proud native of Lyles Station, Indiana – Alonzo Fields took one of the few jobs available to a black man in Boston in the 1920s: a household servant. Then a chance encounter with First Lady Lou Henry Hoover leads to a position at the White House, where he ascends to Chief Butler. As he says in the play, Fields planned to only work through the winter before returning from Washington to Boston and his music – “That ‘winter’ lasted 21 years.”

David Alan Anderson transforms fully into Fields, recounting his career to us as he waits for the bus after his last day at the White House. Through him – and Still’s researched work, based in part on Fields’ memoir – we gain an insight into the lives and personalities of four presidents and their wives, as well as visiting British prime minister Winston Churchill.

The political scene is largely beside the point, though the racist policies of of the era can’t be ignored. Fields remembers encountering segregated facilities, and reflects on President Harry Truman’s orders to integrate the military. Serving through the end of Herbert Hoover’s term and 12 years of Franklin D. Roosevelt gave him a unique perspective on the White House during the Great Depression, as well as World War II.

The most striking thing about the narrative is the focus on the presidents and their families, their humanity and the way they conducted themselves in public and private. In this context, the Executive Mansion becomes a fully fleshed-out character as well. Adding to the context of history we may already know, we gain a deeper understanding of the Hoovers, the Roosevelts, the Trumans, and the Eisenhowers. And, in turn, we get the measure of this man before us, our unassuming hero, as well as the hard-working staff who invisibly keep the White House running smoothly, allowing our leaders to do their jobs as best they can.

The IRT is at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, next to Circle Centre. For information and tickets, call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

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.