Indy companies expertly flesh out Richard III’s twisted skeleton

By John Lyle Belden

In 2012 came the stunning news of a human skeleton discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England. It was the twisted body of what history and legend regard as a twisted soul, King Richard III. This setting opens the Catalyst Repertory/First Folio production of William Shakespeare’s play about the infamous monarch at the IndyFringe Theatre.

In what would be the last years of England’s Wars of the Roses between contesting royal families, King Edward IV is sick and dying. Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, is reviled for his crippled body, which brings on his sour attitude. The clever Duke decides if he can’t look like a hero to gain the crown, he’ll be the villain. But between him and the throne are George, Duke of Clarence; nobles faithful to Edward’s wife, Queen Elizabeth; and the child heir, Edward, Prince of Wales.

Some people are going to have to die.

Matt Anderson completely transforms into Richard, with the help of costume artist Linda Schornhorst (whose excellent work adorns the whole cast). This, coupled with Anderson’s complete control of his body and expressions, keeps him the focus of every scene. He leers towards the audience, proudly revealing to us his schemes. He lurks like a menacing vulture as his plans unfold. He contorts himself into whatever ingratiating pose will fool those around him as he continues grasping to take, then desperately hold power.

Carey Shea anchors the play as doomed Clarence, heroic Richmond and the archaeologist who bridges the gap between history and today. Jay Hemphill is charming as the Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s cousin and co-conspirator until he becomes cursed with a conscience.

Also notable are the women of the play, Allison Clark Reddick as Elizabeth; Christina Howard as Lady Anne, Richard’s unwilling bride (and a few scenes as Lord Grey); Nan Macy as the Duchess of York, Richard’s disappointed mother; and Casey Ross as Queen Margaret, widow of a previous monarch and bitter prophet.

The children – Dalyn Stewart as Prince Edward and Lex Lumpkin as his cousin, the Duke of York – are both sharp.

And kudos to Doug Powers, Matthew Socey, Ryan Reddick, Kevin Caraher, Matthew Walls, Mark Cashwell and John Mortell in various roles. Thanks to Glenn L. Dobbs’ direction and the play being adapted to two hours, in two acts, by Dobbs, Ross and Ben Power, it’s not hard to follow the sprawling cast of characters. (Richard has many of them killed, anyway.)

Plays like this are always apropos in an era of political turmoil, and performances this good are worth seeing at any time.

“Richard III” runs through July 9 at the IndyFringe Basile stage, 719 E. St. Clair (by the intersection of St. Clair, College and Massachusetts Ave.). See indyfringe.org for info and tickets.

Generosity of ‘The Open Hand’ and its consequences on Phoenix stage

By John Lyle Belden

While most of us like to think of ourselves as generous people, we forget how deeply ingrained our capitalist culture is in our psyches. We give to get. When we receive, there is a price, even if it’s “free.”

The notion of something-for-something, and making sure two parties are “even” need not apply just to events that are deep or life-changing. What do you do when someone gives something to you, truly expecting absolutely nothing in return?

This is question drives the plot of “The Open Hand,” a play by Robert Caisley at the Phoenix Theatre through May 14.

Allison (Leah Brenner) seriously wants no presents, or even acknowledgment, of her upcoming birthday. We are unsure of her vocation, as may be she, admitting, “I majored in indecision.” But her fiance Jack (Jay Hemphill) is a talented chef and aspiring restaurateur. Her friends Todd (Jeremy Fisher) and Freya (Julie Mauro) are at crucial points in their careers – he is a car salesman who hates his job and she is a wine expert about to potentially win a highly-lucrative position. All four are full of potential, but their hopes for a lucky break are overshadowed by fear that they haven’t earned it.

One day, after Allison is accidentally left at a restaurant with the check and no money, a curiously friendly man, David Nathan Bright (Charles Goad), steps in and pays the bill. As it had started to rain, he also gives her his umbrella, then exits.

Allison is so stunned by this generosity that she can’t bring herself to tell Jack about it, until later, giving the impression that she had done something wrong. When she, by chance, comes across David again, she offers to do something to repay him, but he sees no need. She finally invites him to a gathering that is “coincidentally” on her birthday. But when he arrives, his generosity becomes even more casually extravagant. This does not sit well with anyone.

This drama, with lots of comic elements, has surprising depth as we see each character’s relationship with giving, receiving and obligation (real or imagined), including hints into David’s mysterious backstory. It is also an interesting look at the different perspectives between the haves and the have-nots – or in this case, the wish-to-haves.

Goad is in his element, bringing gentle gravitas to a character that is all subtlety. Brenner, too, embodies the complexity of her role. Fisher, Hemphill and Mauro all ably portray explosive personalities with fuses of varying shortness.

Whether it is better to give than receive, this play suggests it might also be easier. The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Catalyst’s ‘Tooth’ gives us much to chew on

By John Lyle Belden

When you enter the Grove Haus theater to experience “Tooth of Crime,” presented by Catalyst Repertory, you enter another world.

It’s a dystopian potential America of the 2080s, a Mad-Max atmosphere in which the battles aren’t over oil but fame – and your place on the rock ‘n’ roll charts. Those on top find themselves “marked,” with life and death consequences.

Hoss (Davey Pelsue) is an aging Marker at the top of The Game. He respects the Code, as well as the country and blues musicians that inform his down-and-dirty rock style. He doesn’t test the wrath of the Keepers, but is not too happy that other performers are bending the rules, especially Gypsies who don’t abide by the Code at all.

Vexed and paranoid, Hoss fires his stargazer, Mirra (Ryan Powell), for advising him to be cautious. A Deejay, Rudio Ran (Jay Hemphill), reassures him he’s still on top, but he suspects it’s flattery. His manager and girlfriend, Becky Lou (Sarah Hoffman) is worried, and the drugs Doc (Nan Macy) give him make him even more unmanageable. Then, right-hand man Chaser (Zach Stonerock) informs Hoss that a rival has marked him, and a Gypsy by the name of Crow (Adam Tran) is on his way to do battle. Chaser finds an impartial Ref (David Molloy) to adjudicate.

The culture of this play has its own dialect – though after a while you can “suss” it out – and the duel is mainly psychic, through words spoken and sung. Though they brandish guns and knives, Hoss and Crow strive to break each other’s mind and soul before fatally attacking the body.

For the audience, this requires paying close attention as much as possible, but not getting too concerned that you can’t tell exactly what’s said or even going on. This drama with music was written by Sam Shepard in 1972 and rewritten in 1997, which helps explain its vibe being somewhere between “Easy Rider” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” filtered through Greek tragedy.

This show isn’t for everyone, but if you go with it, you can witness a stylish indictment of the corrosive nature of celebrity, and experience the passion that Pelsue and his castmates put into their performance. Hoss practically sweats every word and lyric he utters. Crow is like a preening bird, but with a dangerous edge even when knocked off-balance.

An on-stage band provides excellent accompaniment to the show’s proceedings. The music was provided by Shepard, with additions by T Bone Burnett in the 1990s, and director Casey Ross found a more recent hit to finish the play.

Performances are Fridays through Sundays through Feb. 26 at 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. Get info and tickets at uncannycasey.wix.com/catalystrepertory.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Doesn’t seem so “Dirty” these days, does it?

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

It seems few people give a thought towards Mae West these days. After all, she was a star of the black-and-white film era, a Vaudeville player. She was curvy when ample curves were cool, but sexy when the mere hint of sex – let alone making “Sex” the name of your play – could get you in trouble.

But she deserves a closer look, not only for how she confronted those troubles and withstood them, but for how she was an advocate not only for sexual freedom but for LGBT rights.

This life is explored in the play “Dirty Blonde,” which has one more weekend (today through Sunday) at Buck Creek Players just southeast of Indy.

We meet not only West (played by Sonja Distefano) and the men in her life (portrayed by Jay Hemphill and Michael Patrick Smiley), but also Jo and Charlie (Distefano and Hemphill), two West fans who meet in the years following West’s 1980 death at her tomb. Charlie had actually met the siren in her later years, an encounter that deeply affected him.

We see the progression of West’s career: from Vaudeville struggles; to controversy with Broadway plays “Sex,” its follow-up “The Drag” – centered on homosexuality – and her hit “Diamond Lil;” to success in film; and finally her stubbornness in insisting on staying in the spotlight and doing things her way to the very end. The scenes are interspersed with the growing relationship of Jo and Charlie, as the line between wanting to know Mae and wanting to be her blurs.

Distefano has the voice and gestures down, but struggles with the charisma of her larger-than-life role; she is far more appealing as Jo. Hemphill and Smiley do great work, but the pacing and overall feel of the show gave a sense that something was lacking. Still, it is a good effort and an enlightening look at an American icon.

Find the Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Get info and tickets at 317-862-2270 or www.buckcreekplayers.com.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

It’s Shakespeare, but it’s fun – really!

By John Lyle Belden

Fans of William Shakespeare need only be told that Indy’s Eclectic Pond Theatre Company has staged “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with one weekend remaining at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair in downtown Indianapolis.

Those less familiar with the Bard, casual fans, or those who think of him in the context of dramas like “Hamlet,” might also find this production a surprising treat.

In the modern tradition of putting the old plays in new settings, the “Athens” of ETC’s “Dream” is located in the world of a 1960s teen beach movie. The fairy folk have Polynesian-inspired garb, while our human characters are in hip threads for a California summer.

Though Shakespeare comedies typically overwhelm the viewer with their multitudes of characters, this play keeps the groupings simple, and, under the direction of Zach Neiditch, easy to follow.

Athenian nobles Theseus (Jay Hemphill) and Hippolyta (Carrie Fedor) are soon to marry. It will also be the wedding of young Hermia (Betsy Norton), but she wishes to wed Lysander (Ethan Mathias) rather than Demetrius (Matt Walls), to whom she has been promised. Hermia’s bestie Helena (Andrea Heiden) wants Demetrius, who isn’t interested. Lysander and Hermia head into the forest during the night, seeking to elope. Helena tells Demetrius, and they follow.

Meanwhile, a group of local artisans – the “mechanicals” – are in the same forest, secretly rehearsing a play they hope to present at the wedding. They are led by Quince (Marcy Thornsberry) who has a hard time containing the boisterous ego of her star, Bottom (Tristan Ross).

And also meanwhile, fairy royalty Oberon and Titania (Hemphill and Fedor) have a disagreement. She storms off, and he decides to have some mischief at her expense – which impish Puck (Sarah Hoffman) is all to eager to provide. Oh, and while she’s at it, she could also make a couple of the mortals wandering the woods fall in love as well.

What follows, of course, are transformations and confusion for the characters, but – despite the Elizabethan language – an easily understandable and hilarious twisting path towards the inevitable happy endings. The production even concludes with the Mechanicals’ play within the play, wherein Ross over-acts to wonderful effect.

As usual, we end with Puck’s apology, but it is hardly needed. This “Dream” is a joy for everyone from the energetic cast to the audience surrounding the IndyFringe stage. Get info at www.eclecticpond.org and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

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

Review: Adults from adult films, adulting

By John Lyle Belden

Let’s clear up one thing right away: There is no sex, simulated or otherwise, in the play “Porno Stars at Home,” on the second stage at Theatre on the Square through April 23. Nor is there nudity (which seems odd, considering TOTS’s brave history). Believe it or not, there is more sex in the shows which both precede and follow it on the theatre’s schedule.

What you get, in Leonard Melfi’s famous 1970s drama, are five people portraying five real, fragile women and men who happen to have jobs engaging in sex acts for adult films.

“My birthday party will not be a disaster,” declares Georgia Lloyd Bernhardt (played by Lisa Marie Smith) as guests start to arrive at her tidy New York apartment. She desperately wants and needs to believe that statement is true, as she faces the stress of turning 35 in an industry that demands youth, as well as a secret she will eventually reveal to her friends. Her quest for a clean space away from her “work” is reflected in her spartan furnishings and desire that all keep even their language clean (a hopeless quest).

First to arrive is her peer, Barry Olivier (Todd Kenworthy). Later we meet hyper Norma Jean Brando (Frankie Bolda), hunky Montgomery McQueen (Jay Hemphill) and beautiful Uta Bergman-Hayes (Miranda Nehrig).

Norma Jean, a confessed nymphomaniac, has a surprise of her own: The last man she casually had sex with is allegedly a playwright and would not only write a part for her, but a play for all five of this group, telling about their lives. (Who knew “going meta” was a thing in the ’70s?) The anticipation of a visit by this man, and the hope it gives to these actors longing for “legitimate” roles, is a touchstone for the drama that follows.

As one might guess, this quintet aren’t happy with a life of boinking on film. Montgomery confesses he hates working in all-male films, despite his ample “talent” tenting his slacks. Meanwhile, Uta says she is tired of sex in all forms and wishes to find a more real and less physical form of intimacy – her attitude is reflected in her wardrobe, sharply dressed in a pantsuit that covers her to her neck and wrists, topped off on her entry with a concealing hat. Barry apparently has compartmentalized his feelings for women from the sex of his job, but seems conflicted on which applies in his relationship with Georgia, one of his more popular co-stars.

I won’t spoil much by saying that Georgia’s little party is indeed a “disaster” – a beautiful, entertaining wreck that tests and humanizes these characters who found themselves in lives of equal parts fame and shame. Considering that thousands of men and women are involved in the adult film industry to this day (a much bigger, wilder world thanks to the internet), this look at the “scene” 40 years ago has striking relevance – only the rotary phone (and no individual mobiles) betrays the era, since retro décor and disco fashion could become in vogue at any time. Kudos to this quintet, and director Bill Wilkison, for bringing these hurting souls to life – and I can’t help but hope those alter egos made it away from their “day job” to answer an audition notice by an enigmatic off-Broadway playwright by the name of Melfi…

Needless to say, “Porno Stars at Home” is for mature audiences. Find TOTS at 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis. Call 317-685-8687 or visit0 tots.org.

(Review also published at The Word.)