IRT returns to ‘House that Jack Built’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre has done the most “IRT” thing it could have done, reviving (virtually) the play “The House That Jack Built,” by playwright-in-residence James Still, directed by the incomparable Janet Allen.

The performance, captured with the help of local public television station WFYI, is available to stream at your leisure through June 20 at irtlivevirtual.com.

“The House That Jack Built” is the start of a trilogy of three plays that can each stand alone, each with a distinctly different style. The character Jack almost literally haunts all three stories, a man of immense promise, beloved by friends and family, who disappeared in the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. This tragedy affects his sister, driving her to her dangerous career in the second drama, “Miranda.” The quest to move on ironically brings Jack’s daughter and his mother to one of his favorite places, Italy, in the quirky third play, “Appoggiatura.” But now, we have again the first story, establishing this close and troubled family as they gather for Thanksgiving at Jack’s widow’s Vermont home in 2012.

English-born Jules (Jennifer Johansen) is striving to be a perfect hostess, and has a lot of support from boyfriend Eli (Aaron Kirby), close friend – and Jack’s sister – Lulu (Constance Macy) and her husband Ridge (David Shih), and Jack’s mother, Helen (Jan Lucas), who also lives in the area. Others were planning on attending, but foul weather and work issues prevent them (these appear in the other plays).

Indianapolis theatre audiences are familiar with these actors, especially Johansen, Macy and Lucas, and all bring their best effort to an excellent deep examination of these characters. We feel their love and experience their easy humor, with a treasure trove of memories into which they dare not dig too deep. But no matter what facet of the past they look into, Jack is there. This spiritual and psychological weight they have carried for over a decade raises the question: Does his spirit haunt them, or are they clinging to it, “haunting” him?

For any fans of Still’s work, (or if, like me, you missed this play the first time around) this is a must-see. And a wonderful way to conclude this unusual IRT season. Allen, the Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director, says a new – more traditionally staged – season for 2021-22 will soon be announced.

IRT’s ‘Cyrano’: The power of ‘words of love’

By John Lyle Belden

It is wonderful to see a well-staged production of a timeless story, but in five acts? Fortunately, the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s “Cyrano” uses the adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Jo Roets, which slims the story down to its essence, an elegant economy of words that would impress the titular legendary French noble.

“Have him write to me,” Roxane (Melisa Pereyra, right) says to Cyrano de Bergerac (Ryan Artzberger) in the Indiana Repertory Theatre production of “Cyrano,” also starring Jeb Burris, viewable online through May 9 (Photo by Zach Rosing)

In fact, one of the original play’s most famous scenes – Act 1, Scene 1.IV, in which Cyrano cleverly comes up with every possible insult for his famously large nose – is related by the actors at the very beginning, to set the scene. That this is a man of incredible wit and passion, yet sensitive about his appearance, is foremost; that the story takes place in mid-1600s France is incidental.

Cyrano, leader of the noble Cadets that serve with the French Army, is renowned for his dueling prowess as well as his poetry, but while he can defend his heart from a blade, he aches for his cousin (distant in family, close in relationship) Roxane. As he considers confessing his love for her, she tells of her love for the handsome Christian, a new Cadet that she wishes Cyrano to take under his protection. This is not her only concern: The tedious Count de Guiche (Cyrano’s commander) wishes to marry Roxane himself.

While remembering his promise to not fillet Christian for mocking his schnozz, Cyrano hears the young man say that he, too, is in love with Roxane, but is at a loss with “words of love.” Thus comes the plan for the noble poet’s words in letters delivered in the handsome Cadet’s name. The plan is endangered, however, when she wishes to hear Christian woo her in person, resulting in likely the second most famous balcony scene in all of theatre.

Ryan Artzberger is Cyrano; the IRT regular slips into the role as he has done so many others, with all the heart-on-sleeve panache he can muster. Melisa Pereyra is also sharp as Roxane, strong-willed and clever, a heroine in her own right. Jeb Burris takes on nearly all other roles, notably Christian and de Guiche – nimbly transforming between the very different rivals, in voice and manner as well as costume, helping us to love the former and detest the latter.

Direction is handled by the IRT’s Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director – essentially, the boss – Janet Allen. Burris choreographed the swordplay. A simple but effective stage is designed by Russell Metheney, and costumes are by Linda Pisano.

Also notable is Cyrano’s prosthetic nose, by Becky Scott. It is imposing and hawkish, much like on the portrait of the historical figure on whom the play is based, and not an absurdly exaggerated ski-slope like one often sees.

With an approximately 90-minute run time, this exciting and endearing drama would be an excellent alternative to streaming an old movie (or most new ones). The play was recorded by WFYI Public Television and can be viewed at irtlivevirtual.com through May 9.

Life lessons continue for aging friends in IRT comedy

By John Lyle Belden

Even after we’ve been around for decades, life can surprise or even shock us, and as long as we’re alive, we have to work out what’s next. In this spirit, “Morning After Grace,” by Carey Crim, a comedy with all the dramatic feels, appears on the Indiana Repertory Theatre stage. 

As the play opens, Abigail (Laura T. Fisher) and Angus (Henry Woronicz) experience a “morning after” following meeting at a funeral. Since they live in a retirement village in Florida, it’s not as unusual as you’d think. And while they are sorting things out, neighbor Ollie (Joseph Primes) pays a visit. From the beginning, misunderstandings and miscommunications bring about hilariously comic moments. 

Through the actors’ skill, and direction by IRT Artistic Director Janet Allen, this trio develop a wild, quirky chemistry that you get with people with so little in common thrust together. What they do share is a need to deal with loss, and with conflicts with those they now find it difficult to love. 

But another facet is how all three look forward — while acknowledging it being “of a certain age,” they each see a future: Abigail has a career as a counselor; Angus has a beautiful house and an opportunity to start over; and soon Ollie will put aside that cane he walks with and embrace life with his beloved. 

With all this depth, I must reiterate that this is a comedy; at times I nearly laughed myself blind. The trio execute the comic beats perfectly — for Woronicz especially refreshing to see the flip side of his dramatic acting in “12 Angry Men” last year.

The end result is like your favorite episode of a classic sitcom with serious undertones, like “MASH,” “Seinfeld,” “Mom,” or the similar “Cool Kids” — but with one well-placed F-bomb.

Escape the cold for this warm-hearted delight, through Feb. 9 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington in downtown Indy (near Circle Center). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

And congratulations to Janet Allen for being named the Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director with the endowment of a $2 million gift to the IRT by the Eccles charitable fund. The late Ms. Eccles was an avid supporter and board member of the theatre.

IRT reminds us of the very human cost of the Holocaust

By John Lyle Belden

A recent survey reported that an alarming percentage of people don’t believe the Holocaust happened, or that as many were killed as history attests (six million Jews, perhaps 17 million overall).

This makes productions such as the drama “The Diary of Anne Frank” — which opened the weekend before Holocaust Remembrance Day at Indiana Repertory Theatre — so vital to public conversation.

After the Nazis came to power in their native Germany (initially via elections, don’t forget), the Frank family moved to The Netherlands, where Otto Frank ran a small factory in Amsterdam. But then Germany started invading its neighbors, with the Dutch quickly succumbing to the blitzkrieg. Letting friends and neighbors assume they had made a run for Switzerland, Otto secreted his family, along with that of his best friends and fellow Jews, the Van Daan’s, in an upstairs “secret annex” to his plant. Non-Jewish allies, Mr. Kraler and Miep Gies, ran the factory and kept their secret, bringing them supplies at night. Along with his wife, Edith, Otto had his daughters — quiet, studious Margot, and energetic Anne, who stilled herself by obsessively writing in her diary. Hermann and Auguste Van Daan were accompanied by their teenage son, Peter. Miep later brought them an eighth refugee, dentist Albert Dussel, who kept to himself and kept sane thinking of his Gentile fiance waiting elsewhere in the city. Thus a group of people lived as best they could for two years, until their nightmares came true.

Those are the facts, the rest we know from the words of a girl growing up while her world crumbles outside. These words — from romantic optimism to despairing angst — come to life on the IRT’s stage, which is skillfully crafted by Bill Clarke to portray its cramped quarters (though more horizontally-arranged than the actual annex for dramatic reasons) with impeccable detail. Inhabiting it are an excellent cast of local and Seattle-area actors (this production will move — sets, actors and all — to Seattle Children’s Theatre later in the year).

Miranda Troutt wins and breaks our hearts as Anne, star and narrator of her story. Her frequent bouts of optimism both uplift and annoy her housemates, but she doesn’t hold back in her writings of her teenage frustrations. Hannah Ruwe portrays Margot, who is stronger in spirit than in body and striving to be more mentor than rival to her sister. Benjamin N.M. Ludiker plays Peter as an introvert gradually coming to terms with the force of nature who is slowly falling in love with him. Ryan Artzberger turns in another powerful IRT performance as Otto, whose bravery is contrasted with Betsy Schwartz’s worrisome Edith. Robert Neal and Constance Macy give layered performances as the Van Daans, his character pragmatic to a fault, hers desperately clinging to artifacts of their past life. Sydney Andrews is a ray of much-needed sunshine as Miep. Mark Goetzinger is solid as Kraler. Rob Johansen is oddly endearing as our feeling-out-of-place dentist.

This play does an excellent job, as director Janet Allen put it, “to put a human face on genocide.” Anne’s face smiles to us through old photographs, but we get a real person’s full spectrum of genuine human emotions and yearnings in her writings, and works like this that they inspired. For a deeper look beyond the dry pages of history texts and by-the-numbers online articles, get to know these very real people whom a regime declared less than human, condemned to extermination. Note that only one of the eight in the annex survives the war (spoiler alert — it’s not Anne).

IRT’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” will be presented to thousands of local students during its run. There are also public performances through Feb. 24 on the mainstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

IRT blesses us, every one

By John Lyle Belden

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – you know it; everyone knows it.

The Scrooge-bahhumbug-Crachits-Tiny-Tim-Marley-three-ghosts-Godblessuseveryone story is nearly as familiar as the Nativity. In fact, some of our favorite tellings take great liberties with the story, like the Muppet version or the movie “Scrooged.”

But it is also promoted as a proper holiday tradition, faithfully executed, every year at Indiana Repertory Theatre. So, how do they keep it reliable, yet unique?

Start with the Tom Haas script, which hews fairly closely to the source material. Under director Janet Allen, have the cast tell the story as they portray the events, in a pudding-smooth blend of narration and action.

Keep the set simple, as scenic designer Russell Metheny has done. The dominant feature is the drifts of snow absolutely everywhere – pure white like holiday magic, yet also a constant desolate reminder of the dangerous cold of a Victorian English winter. Setpieces drift in and out, and a simple large frame sees duty in many ways – a doorway, a mirror, a passage to what comes next.

Cast some of the best talent in Indy, including a number of IRT regulars, starting with the brilliant Ryan Artzberger as Scrooge. Other familiar faces include Charles Goad, Mark Goetzinger and the luminous Millicent Wright. You may also recognize Emily Ristine, Scot Greenwell and Jennifer Johansen. Then there are Jeremy Fisher, Charles Pasternak, Ashley Dillard and Joey Collins. And mix in some great young talent as well, such as Tobin Seiple and Maddie Medley, who take turns as Tiny Tim.

Present it all in a single movie-length performance, submersing the audience into the story until we can’t help but get caught up in it. Of course, we know what’s going to happen next, but with the spirit of live theatre taking us along, we don’t just watch the play, we experience it.

I feel like a bit of a Scrooge sometimes, thinking of things like the Dickens story as stale and overdone; but having seen what IRT does with it, I now see why all those who go back every year enjoy it so much. You, also, might want to consider adding this show to your list of cherished holiday traditions.

Performances continue through Christmas Eve at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indy. Get information and tickets at www.irtlive.com.