Quiet play has a lot to say

By John Lyle Belden

The stage is so serene, as the actors silently enter one by one, you don’t want to make a noise in the audience, either.

To the delight of American Lives Theatre director Chris Saunders, the rule of silence in this retreat setting of “Small Mouth Sounds” by Bess Wohl, seems to permeate the room, as he presents, in his words, “What if you met a stranger and didn’t have the words to immediately assume everything about them?”

Jan (Kevin Caraher), a nicely dressed older man, calmly takes his seat. Ned (Zacharia Stonerock), wide eyes under his stocking cap, comes in looking unsure of himself. When Rodney (Lukas Felix Schooler), whose manner can’t help but project the fact he is a Yoga master, comes in and takes off his sandals, Ned immediately sheds his shoes and from then on, we have an assumed rule in this meeting space. The no-talking rule is also taken for granted, so it is jarring to hear married(?) couple Joan (Nathalie Cruz) and Judy (Jenni White) enter, bickering. But they get the hint, and soon the voice of the Teacher (Ben Rose) fills the space, exotically sounding like an English-speaking African man.

Teacher opens with a cryptic story of talking frogs; warns that the participants will not necessarily encounter him, or even Enlightenment, but “yourselves;” and gives the rules, which include that aside from a structured Q&A with him once a day, no one is to speak. During this, our last camper, Alicia (Morgan Morton) enters; the fact that she missed an important rule will come back on them later in the play.

Through our mind’s eye and the laying out of mats, the stage also becomes their cabin floor, as we get further impressions of these men and women, and the first lack-of-language barrier issue as Jan and Alicia were, it seems, assigned the same space.

Early on in this journey, the campers are instructed to each write their “intention” on a slip of paper, a source of friction when one accidentally reads another’s. As the drama builds, so does the humor, both drawing interesting and startling exchanges and moments from their self-enforced mime-hood.

Note that this play does include brief nudity, forbidden incense, and illicit use of Fritos. We also get Ned’s “life story,” as he accidentally asks the character’s most profound question. We also get a sense of deep loss – past, present, and future – each participant is working through. Even Rodney, acting blithely like a sort of yogic tourist, comes into some hard lessons.

At some point, practically every rule of the retreat is broken, which even brings Teacher – dealing with off-campus issues and finding Enlightenment via cold medicine – to his own self-reckoning.

Performances are sublime. Schooler uses his real-world yoga knowledge to good effect. Stonerock ably gives us a man struggling with his own identity, in more than the philosophical sense. Morton gives us someone about whom we learn so little yet feel for so much. We read volumes between the lines with White and Cruz – the former as a cancer survivor, and the latter recovering in her own way. And I don’t want to say too much about Caraher, but the revelation of his character sticks with you pleasantly.

Now that I’m outside that space, I feel free to speak up: See “Small Mouth Sounds,” in remaining performances Friday through Sunday, Dec. 10-12, at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis. Info and tickets at americanlivestheatre.org.

Don’t ‘fiddle’ and miss this one

By John Lyle Belden

“Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is a new play by Southbank Theatre Company artistic director Marcia Eppich-Harris, but stands well in style and content with other great historical tragedies. I sense it could have been written at any time between now and the 900s, when the myth that Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” became popular. 

The premiere Southbank production of the play, at the IndyFringe Basile stage through Oct. 2, resembles a Bardfest event in its excellent handling by director Doug Powers and a cast that includes David Mosedale as Stoic philosopher Seneca and Evren Wilder Elliott as teenage “Princeps” Nero. 

Despite the abundance of written material in the First Century, much of it surviving to today, the true history of Nero is anything but clear, with contemporary accounts often written by those who didn’t like the young tyrant and centuries passing to add myth and legend to his story. The fiddle didn’t even exist at the time, but it was possible to draw a bow across a lyre, an instrument that Nero did enjoy playing — and he embraced music and theatre at a time when its practitioners were in lower regard than prostitutes (never mind an alleged god-king). Just as we don’t mind the words that Shakespeare put into the ancients’ mouths, Eppich-Harris is perfectly entitled to her well-researched dramatic license, especially as she captured the spirit of the era and its abundant lessons for today’s social and political climate. 

Seneca was Nero’s tutor when he ascended to the throne, and the boy, feeling immediately in over his head, smartly kept the philosopher on as principal advisor and speechwriter, as well as trusted military leader Afranius Burrus (David Molloy) to head his guard. Also on the scene were his ever-hovering mother Agrippina (Rachel Snyder), naive half-brother Britannicus (Brant Hughes), and dutiful but suspicious stepsister/wife Octavia (Bra’Jae’ Allen) whom he would ignore in favor of the beautiful and ambitious Sabina (Trick Blanchfield). At Seneca’s side were faithful wife Pompeia Paulina (Jenni White) and his nephew, the famous poet Lucan (Noah Winston).

Elliott brilliantly brings us along on the emperor’s journey, as he grows older and more at ease with power, but no more mature. At first troubled by signing off on the deaths of the justly condemned, Nero comes to find a quick murder is an easy solution to an immediate problem — but then more issues pop up in its place. Each death takes a little more of his soul, power-madness devolving to madness, reducing him until nearly no one is left, and the knife is in his hand.

Mosedale stands ever solid, defending his young charge as long as he can while defending himself against the hypocrisy of living large yet espousing Stoic principles. In the end, he must choose between Nero and Rome. White’s Pompeia leads the greater example, steadfast to her husband but never wavering on their moral stand. 

Snyder embodies the complex Agrippina without slipping into villainous caricature, perhaps even engendering some sympathy as the evil she sows grows out of her control. Molloy exemplifies the “good soldier” completely, bearing his orders until his sense of justice can do no more.

An exceptional look at history and the dynamics and hazards of unfettered power, “Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is worthy to stand among the Classics. We encourage all who can to see it, and to those reading this in the future to consider bringing to your own stages.

Find information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org. Note that COVID-19 vaccination and masking are required of all audience members. Home viewing via “on-demand” streaming available Oct. 15-Nov. 14 (see Southbank site for details).

At the District: Travel from Waukegan to Mars on a bicycle

By John Lyle Belden

When one has access to an age-altering carousel, why let a little thing like death stop you? After all, Mr. Electrico told him he would “Live forever!”

To understand what I mean by this, see the Midwest premiere of “Ray Bradbury Live (Forever)” at The District Theater, presented by IndyFringe – in just two more performances, today and tomorrow (May 4-5), before continuing its national tour.

Bradbury wheels onto the stage, played by lifelong fan and Emmy-winning actor Bill Oberst Jr. He then removes a tarp from a lecture stand, places it on his bicycle, and proceeds to talk to us about his life, career and feelings on topics such as writing and the importance of libraries. We get a glimpse of his growing up in Waukegan, Ill. (“it’s not ugly to a child”), and Los Angeles (near Hollywood, which he often visited). We even meet his charming wife, Maggie (played locally by Jenni White).

The “science fiction writer who never drove a car” also engages us with mesmerizing dramatic excerpts from “A Sound of Thunder” (from whence we get the term “butterfly effect”), “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and “The Martian Chronicles.” Oberst’s skill makes Bradbury’s words come alive, helping us feel the greatness imbedded in these stories, and what they say about being human and the human desire to mess with forces they barely understand.

In fact, Oberst crafted the entire show from the words of Ray Bradbury — from his texts, to letters and interviews. The script was vetted by the Ray Bradbury Estate, as well as Dr. Jonathan Eller, Director of IUPUI’s Center For Ray Bradbury Studies, who attended the opening performance. We hear such nuggets as, “I don’t predict the future, I try to prevent it;” “I write fantasy because I believe in fantasy;” and from a poem: “Give book, Give smile.”

Oberst said after the show that he tried for years to get friends who more resembled Bradbury to portray him on stage before finally deciding to take on the role himself. Wearing a comfortable suit, appropriate hairstyle, trademark black-frame glasses, and a friendly and enthusiastic demeanor, he does just fine. Behind the sparse stage is a large screen that shows facts and trivia about Bradbury prior to the show (come early, none of the slides repeat), and supporting scenes and illustrations during the performance. Note there are some strobe-effects during the telling of “Sound of Thunder.”

This excellent premiere – first performances since opening in Los Angeles – came about in part with the help of IndyFringe CEO Pauline Moffatt, who said she saw Oberst in a previous Fringe and encouraged him to return, aided by the perfect synergy with the Bradbury Center here in Indianapolis.

For devoted fans, casual fans, or anyone interested in discovering this American literary master, you have two more chances in Indy: 8 p.m. today and 4 p.m. Sunday at The District (former location of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave. downtown. Call 317-308-9800 or visit IndyDistrictTheatre.org or IndyFringe.org.

For those who can’t make it, or are reading this on or after May 6, find info and future performances at raybradburyliveforever.com.

BCP: Life’s changes not always a laughing matter

By John Lyle Belden

The title “Making God Laugh,” for the comic drama now on stage at Buck Creek Players, refers to the old joke about giving the Almighty a giggle by telling Him your plans.

And this good Catholic family’s matriarch, Ruthie (Gloria Bray), definitely has plans. With postal-worker husband Bill (Tom Riddle) at her side, she wants to see: son Rick (Matt Spurlock) succeed at something, any scheme at all, other than high school football MVP; son Tom (Ben Jones) become a priest, maybe Monsignor (maybe the Vatican?); and daughter Maddie (Jenni White) to get being an actor out of her system so she can settle down with a nice young man.

The scenes are set at various holidays: Thanksgiving 1980, Christmas 1990, New Years Eve 2000, and an unusual and emotional “Easter” in 2010. We see the evolution of these characters, and what remains unchanging. From the life-changing choices made by Maddie and Tom, to Ruthie staying ever set in her ways and expectations, at the core of this family story is love. There is also the struggle for acceptance, both of others and of self, giving the plot surprising depth.

This cast wear their roles like the comfortable clothes one wears around kin. Bray is a rock; Jones gives one of his best performances; and White excels as a person that she admits felt a bit autobiographical. Cathy Cutshall directs.

For those of us who lived through the eras, the references to each decade bring a knowing smile. (There is also a mention of the game Catholic Jeopardy — which apparently does exist, as a box of it is under the coffee table.) At the end of each scene, there is a family photo, leading to a full album in the end.

You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate this family’s struggles – we all know a Ruthie we’re related to. And God isn’t the only one laughing. Performances run through Sunday, April 7, at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

P.S.: As an example of the fact that anything can happen in live theatre, during a scene change on opening night there was a spontaneous audience sing-along. The BCP crew were both surprised and amused.

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.

Phoenix: A dream for better women’s lives coming true

By John Lyle Belden

OK, a feminist, a Jew and a Catholic walk into a play…

This is no joke.

In “The Pill,” a drama by Tom Horan in its world premiere run at the new Phoenix Theatre, five women play all the roles – male and female – in the story of the development of the first oral contraceptive.

In the 1950s, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger (Constance Macy) and former suffragette Katherine McCormick (Jan Lucas) discuss the need to find an “off switch” to pregnancy, something biological that can be taken like an aspirin. Society (mostly men) tells them that such an interference with nature is not possible and not needed. Not accepting either notion, Sanger persuades Dr. Gregory Pincus (Adrianne Villareal) to work on developing a birth-control pill. Once the drug proves effective in animals, these three talk to Dr. John Rock (Jen Johansen) – over Sanger’s objections due to his Catholicism – for help in conducting human trials.

Meanwhile, Sanger receives letters from Sadie Sachs (Jenni White), a young woman who hoped for a career as a nurse, but instead goes through multiple births and miscarriages as her husband insists she continue her “wifely duties.” She is literally dying to get the “secret” that Sanger’s associates are working on.

Directed by Bill Simmons, the play is performed in the round, in the intimate space of the Phoenix’s new black-box Basile Stage (the first production performed there). There is a dreamlike aspect to the flow of the scenes and minimal furniture, with a bit of whimsy and situational humor tempered by Sanger’s hard-edged persistence and Sadie’s heartbreaking visits. It’s a factual fantasia, full of feminine energy. Each scene and vignette is accented by the ringing of a bell; it’s meaning unclear – perhaps reminiscent of an old drugstore pharmacist alerting us the prescription is ready. Still, in moment after moment, it never quite is – Ding! Ding! Ding! We need it, can we have it now?

It would be difficult to praise this cast too much – Johansen, Lucas and Macy are local legends, Villareal a savvy Phoenix veteran, and White (previously seen in Phoenix’s “Barbecue” and starring in Buck Creek Players’ “Nuts”) is incredibly talented as well. They take charge of the material, relieving Simmons of any charges of “mansplaining.” As for the male playwright, it is obvious Horan did his homework, and treats the subject and the people affected with utmost respect.

With The Pill being around and available since the 1960s, it’s too easy a half-century later to take it and its influence on society for granted. This play is important to remind us all – men and women – why this pill was needed and how difficult it was to get it even made. If progress stops, it can be rolled back, or as Sanger says, “We haven’t come this far, to only come this far.”

Performances run through June 10. The Phoenix Theatre is now located at 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis, just north of the Scottish Rite Cathedral downtown. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

OMGWTFBBQ — Phoenix cooks up another masterpiece

By John Lyle Belden

If you’ve ever joked about being the “white sheep” of the family, then “Barbecue,” the comedy presented through Nov. 19 at the Phoenix Theatre, will stir up some memories.

Family members gather at a park for what looks like a cookout, but is actually an intervention for the sister affectionately known as “Zippity Boom.” But, you know the Bible saying that one shouldn’t try to take the speck out of another’s eye before removing the stick out of their own? With this bunch, there’s lumber everywhere.

This play is about more than addiction and the comedy inherent in family dysfunction. It also delves into the fickle issue of honesty vs. “truth,” as well as a critique of today’s pop culture. Most importantly, as director Bryan Fonseca says in a note tucked into the program: “We present a play about race in America where none of the characters are racist.”

Chelsey Stauffer is fabulous as Zippity Boom, a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, LaKesha Lorene shines as the kind of driven diva you might be familiar with if you watch “Extra!” or “Entertainment Tonight.” As for the rest, Dena Toler is in top form, and we also get excellent work from Joanna Bennett, Jeffery Martin, Brianna Milan, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha, Angela Plank, Beverly Roche and Jenni White.

The play’s structure hooks you in with hilarity, then takes a curious twist that becomes clear in Act 2 (so no leaving at intermission!). By the end, the full depth of the satire is revealed in entertaining fashion. Theatre-in-the-round staging helps draw the audience in, and ensures there is no bad seat (though sitting on the side by the entrance ensures the best view of the Epilogue scene). Bernie Killian’s set design is a perfect recreation of a park shelter, providing a realistic environment for the absurdity that ensues.

Like all Phoenix shows, this play – by celebrated writer Robert O’Hara – is thought-provoking, but it’s also side-splittingly funny. Even if, to some degree, we’re laughing at ourselves.

The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. For info and tickets call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

BCP presents serious drama

By John Lyle Belden

Wendy remembers a video rental place (remember those?) where the clerks kept putting the 1987 Streisand movie “Nuts” on the comedy shelves, and it definitely did not belong there.

While the courtroom drama, the original stage version of which is at Buck Creek Players, does have its moments of legal wit, and a defendant who deflects with “inappropriate humor,” this play is dead serious.

In a courtroom on the grounds of New York’s Bellevue Hospital in the winter of 1979, a hearing will determine if Claudia (played by Jenni White) is competent to stand trial for manslaughter. Her mother and stepfather (Miki Mathioudakis and Tim Latimer) are naturally concerned. Judge Murdoch (Ed Mobley) and prosecutor MacMillan (Dave Hoffman) are prepared for a fairly routine proceeding, with Dr. Roesnthal (Graham Brinklow) declaring the defendant unfit, and the state signing off on it. Officer Harry (Tracy Jones) is just biding time until the next smoke break.

But Claudia doesn’t believe she is “nuts,” and works with attorney Lewinsky (Michael Swinford), whose apparently disorganized manner makes him look out of his depth – until he starts asking some surprisingly probing questions.

White masterfully portrays the easily underestimated Claudia, as she plays into her opponents’ assumptions until the moment she can turn the tables. Still, she’s hardly in control. Her parents represent past pain that she never reconciled, and her stepfather being put on the stand rips those wounds back open.

Mathioudakis and Latimer tackle difficult roles professionally, she a chameleon whose colors shift from cool to hot as events unfold, he the type of person you at first mistrust because he’s rich, but then find he’s far worse than anyone suspects.

Hoffman plays it competent but stiff, while Swinford as the legal wild card is like a lithe, crafty fox. Mobley is great at crusty characters, and is in charge here. Brinklow is a study in confident arrogance. Jones is subtly reassuring, an unlikely friend. Completing the cast, Adrienne Reiswerg ably plays the court recorder, who, at the play’s close, gets in the last word.

The portrayal of mental healthcare in the late 70s seems so long ago, it’s easy to forget that only a few decades have passed, and much of the stigma – of mental illness, of sex work, and of women’s issues – still remains. And it’s further shocking how the nature of the childhood abuse Claudia suffered becomes almost a footnote in this case. There would be more attention paid today, but, honestly, how much?

Yes, “Nuts” is not a comedy, but it’s kinda funny how its issues are still resonant today.

One weekend of performances remain, Friday through Sunday, Oct. 6-8, at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeast Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.