ALT: What happened there

By John Lyle Belden

In the early 2000s, by annual average there was a suicide in Las Vegas roughly every 26 hours. However I feel about this, I can be confident it is true, as someone checked. The serious and fraught topic of self-harm is what gives the play “The Lifespan of a Fact” its riveting emotional heft, but at its core is the principle noted in the previous sentence.

This drama – with hilarious comic moments to get through the serious context – by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, is presented by American Lives Theatre, directed by Chris Saunders, at the Phoenix Theatre. It is based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal detailing their struggle with D’Agata’s 2010 essay in The Believer magazine.

Editor Emily Penrose (Eva Patton) calls upon intern Jim Fingal (Joe Wagner), a recent Harvard graduate, to fact-check the piece by D’Agata (Lukas Felix Schooler), which is ready to go to print in just a few days. Fingal is told to give it his best effort, as the writer is known to take liberties with details. “Give it the ‘full Jim’,” Penrose instructs, and boy, does she get it.

The essay, focusing on a teenager’s suicide – jumping from the city’s tallest casino tower – to comment on the greater culture of Las Vegas, is riddled with factual errors, starting with the lead paragraph. While the death itself is well-documented, various added details are wrong. Penrose tells Fingal to bring them up directly to D’Agata, which he does by flying out to visit his Vegas apartment.

At first the altered “facts” are trivial, inspiring much of the humor. When Penrose is alerted to one that could get the magazine in legal trouble, she, too, travels from to New York to Nevada, just hours before the presses in Illinois roll for national distribution.

I must note my own bias here. I am an experienced journalist, including a university Journalism degree and experience at four daily newspapers (most recently the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, Ind.). In my mind there was no question that D’Agata was in the wrong with the initial version of the essay. Deviations from the truth, even in details having nothing to do with the core event, and especially easy to confirm and debunk, hurt the credibility of not only the periodical and the writer, but also the valid point of the story itself.

However, D’Agata argues, this isn’t a news “article” but a non-fiction “essay,” and “the wrong facts get in the way of the story.” He justifies altering events for his writing’s symmetry, or because the wording doesn’t “sing” to him otherwise. What could appear as indulging in ego he sees as a higher calling to a deeper “truth.” Having gone to extensive research, interviews, and discussions with the deceased’s family, he feels too personally invested to submit to the smallest correction or alteration.

For his part, Fingal appears absurdly nit-picky – what color were the bricks, how many strip clubs were there? But what we would call “white lies” also contain more misleading falsities, and if any were detected by a reader, he notes, that same person could decry the whole essay as a “hoax” on social media.

Penrose understands the writer isn’t, strictly speaking, a journalist, and her magazine is more literary than hard-news, but she insists on having standards. Still – the writing was so good she senses this could be a major milestone for the publication, if she could just get everyone in agreement on the actual text.

Patton, Wagner and Schooler deliver riveting, top of their game, performances. No winks at the audience, this is serious business involving real people and real incidents (both the publication of the essay and the death that inspired it). The humor is purely situational, the absurd that comes with doing one’s job, this time with higher stakes.

“Trigger Warning” is very much applicable here, if you hadn’t guessed by the subject matter. The play contains the most heart-wrenching moment of silence, and an ending that lets no one off the hook.

The ALT play runs through Sept. 25 at the Phoenix, 712 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis; details and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org or americanlivestheatre.org.

The best-selling 2012 book, also called “The Lifespan of a Fact,” is still available in stores and online. The essay in question is still online in its checked, edited, and published form (Note: intensive discussion and description of suicide) here.

Traumatic issues taken seriously in new drama

By John Lyle Belden

Over time, I have gotten to know persons who shared their struggles with Dissociative Identity Disorder, which pop culture gave the misleading label of “multiple personalities.” This mental health condition is complex and usually borne of deep personal trauma. 

Therefore, the Trigger Warnings for “Coping with Autumn,” the new drama written and directed by Megan Ann Jacobs for Theatre Unchained, presented by Arts for Lawrence, should be taken seriously.

Autumn (Kyrsten Lyster) is under observation after her arrest for killing her boyfriend. She decides that if you are going to watch, she will give you a show, telling you the story of how she arrived in this unfurnished cell.

During her narration, we meet the occupants of her mind: Dee (Maresa Eileen Kelly), the eternal child who won’t tell her what happened when alone with her father, appears shortly before her mother (Rachel A. Snyder) divorces and moves them from Wisconsin to Indiana. Joy (Ethany Reeder Michaud), the impulsive, takes over when potential new high school friends invite her to a party, then ensures Autumn has a “good time.” When regrets set in, Vera (Roci Contreras), the confrontational, appears to make sure those classmates never bother her again.

Like many misfits, Autumn feels more at home at a distant college. There, she is befriended by Kasey (Brittany Magee). They bond over poetry and spend a lot of time together, until Kasey invites Autumn to a “small” get-together. Naturally, it’s another wild crowd, and then the bag of drugs comes out.

Before her “friends” emerge, Autumn exits, and meets Steven (Thomas Sebald). He seems so nice, and perfect. He pampers her, gives her fancy meals and nice gifts. Then he starts making demands. Is this what love is like? Must be, she thinks, and does everything she can to please him – until she can’t. Kasey has been shut out, and Steven has charmed Mom. Who can help her? I’ll give you three guesses.

The second act features Autumn’s trial and aftermath. New allies include therapist Dr. Weber (Kelly Keller) and pro bono attorney Alex (Joe Wagner), who feels a personal connection to the case. But Sebald returns to the stage as a prosecuting attorney, the resemblance not lost on Autumn. 

Lyster, who has shown so much range in past roles, is amazing here. Magee, who joined the cast late into the production, is incredible in support. Snyder is superb, and by happy accident has a physical resemblance to her “daughter.” Their portrayals of well-meaning but damaged women never slip into cliche and evoke appropriate emotional responses from the audience and each other.

This ain’t “Inside Out.” The two adolescents and child that represent portions of
Autumn’s psyche are neither cartoonish nor comic relief. The dissociation is handled respectfully in smooth transitions with Lyster so that we easily see the four actors as aspects of the same woman. 

Sebald plays Steven so disarmingly kind (when the monster is hidden away), it’s easy to see how men like this character can charm and trap women who find no one believes them when relationships turn abusive. And when he’s a beast, “evil” is an understatement.

Cast and crew took this sensitive topic seriously. During a post-show talk-back, dramaturg Max Andrew McCreary said he shared his mental health research with them, including that according to one source, it is estimated that nearly half of adults have at one time had a sort of dissociative incident, from a moment feeling outside one’s body, all along the spectrum to rare cases of true DID (fictional Autumn’s condition is on the spectrum). All involved took consent into account throughout the entire process, from the first rehearsal. Sebald, who said he had helped workshop Steven/Prosecutor, said this was especially essential for him to feel comfortable in his role. This atmosphere of trust helped make the action in this drama more raw and natural, which some in the audience noted in their comments.

If you have experience with abuse and/or psychological trauma, be careful about seeing this. But for any who can manage, this is highly recommended. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 19-21 (post-show talkbacks on Thursday and Saturday) at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (off the north end of Indy’s Post Road). Get info and tickets at TheatreUnchained.org or ArtsForLawrence.org.

Touching treatment of Steinbeck classic in Westfield

By Wendy Carson

There was a comedian who once said he doesn’t like “Star Wars” because growing up he saw the movie “Spaceballs” first and was disappointed by the lack of comedy. Growing up with numerous Looney Tunes cartoon shorts parodying various high-minded subjects, I feel the same way about “Of Mice and Men.” I liked the comedic versions I grew up watching. However, I have learned that with local theater offerings, a great production can change your opinion of a show — and that is the case here.

Main Street Productions in Westfield has on stage a remarkable version of the John Steinbeck novel. George Milton (Brian Coon) and Lennie Small (Joe Wagner) are two drifters in search of a small stake they can use to purchase a small house and farm in order to “live off the fat of the land.” This brings them to the barley farm that proves to be their salvation and undoing.

Once they arrive in the farm bunkhouse, they meet our somewhat usual assortment of characters: the gruff, no-nonsense Boss (A. Mikel Allan) and his hot-headed son Curley (Jake Hobbs), who recently married and seems to always be searching for his flirty wife (Audrey Duprey). For the actual working members of the crew, we have Slim (Robert Webster Jr.), the mule driver and de facto supervisor; Candy (Chris Otterman) a crippled, aging farmhand with a dog (Meeko) about as broken as he is; Crooks (Austin Hookfin), the black stable-hand who gets his name from his injured back (NOTE: As the script was written in 1937 and takes place during the Great Depression, certain racist terms are used, in context); as well as the other farm hands Carlson (Logan Browning) and Whit (Nathaniel Taff).

Coon does a great job of balancing George’s ambitious dream of the future with his concerns for Lennie’s actions erasing all hope of it. While Wagner seemed to take a little bit to fully get into character, once he settled in, his Lennie emulates all of the sweet naivete and simplicity of purpose that the character struggles with in his desire to just hold and enjoy the feel of something soft in his hands.

Otterman’s performance is perhaps my favorite. He manages to keep Candy upbeat while embracing the character’s desolate vision of his pathetically painful demise on the farm. He takes on the hopefulness of joining George and Lennie on their farm, trusting them to “take him out back and shoot him” when he is no longer viable. He even manages to upstage Meeko, whose debut turn as Candy’s Dog makes him a rising star to watch for in future roles.

Chris Otterman aptly brings out Curley’s obsessively neurotic desires to keep his wife happy, yet under control, at any cost. As Curley’s wife, Duprey delicately treads the line between the lonely woman who just wants companionship and the “tart” out to make trouble among the menfolk for her own pleasure. Webster does an admirable job of subtly showing Slim as a man just wanting to keep peace throughout the workforce without encouraging any of them to fall for the “honey trap.”

Hookfin gives us a window to the struggles people in his skin had in that era, even in the otherwise egalitarian world of the farm worker or ranch hand.

James H. Williams directs, and Ian Marshall-Fisher provides an excellent bunkhouse/barn design for the stage. Coon also created the lighting design.

While the show is a heady mixture of the stark realities of life, it does manage to portray the human struggle for hope and happiness throughout. Whether you liked the novel or not, you should certainly give the play a viewing. It will help open dialogues regarding its message and why it remains a classic of literature that should continue to be taught in our schools.

One weekend of “Of Mice and Men” remains, though Sunday, Feb. 20, at the relatively new Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield. Info and tickets at www.westfieldplayhouse.org.

CCP serves up wacky ‘Tenor’

By John Lyle Belden

A Broadway hit that has become a community theatre favorite, Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me A Tenor” is back on stage courtesy of Carmel Community Players.

For the unfamiliar, this hilarious farce takes place in the mid-20th century, set entirely in a Cleveland hotel room. The local opera company has secured a performance by world-renowned tenor “Il Stupendo” Tito Morelli (JD Walls). Mr. Saunders (Thomas Smith), the show’s producer, knows of the singer’s appetites for booze and women, and warns his young assistant, Max (Tyler Marx) to keep a close eye on him. Tito arrives with wife Maria (Sonja Distefano), who is furious about everything, especially Tito. Add to this the visits by Saunders’ daughter Maggie (Caity Withers), who loves Max but adores Tito; ambitious soprano Diana (Rachelle Woolston), who will do anything to get a career boost from the tenor; local socialite Julia (Sally Carter) who wants nothing more than to be seen with Morelli in public; and a singing bellhop (Joe Wagner), insisting on giving an impromptu audition. It’s important to note that Max is a talented aspiring singer, as well. Also, we lose track of the number of sleeping pills Tito takes for his afternoon nap.

The result is two full acts of slamming doors, sharply-executed physical comedy, and all the misunderstandings you can stand — along with some nice moments of operatic singing. Under the direction of Susan Rardin, this bunch take to their roles with gusto, each pitch perfect from Smith’s paternal surliness, to Withers’ charm, Woolston’s seductiveness, Distefano’s fire, Wagner’s cheekiness, Carter’s posh attitude and Walls’ resignation as he finds himself on the wildest ride in Ohio outside King’s Island. Marx as our everyman at the heart of an ever-deepening situation wins us over with his nervous aplomb as Max somehow makes it through it all. Also, as the featured opera is “Pagliacci” (the tragic clown), the tendency of white face makeup to come off on others adds its own comic element.

This “stupendo” production has one more weekend, playing through March 8 at The Cat performance venue, 254 Veterans Way (near the downtown arts district), in Carmel. Call 317-815-9387 or visit www.CarmelPlayers.org.

 

CCP: Trial drama revisits USS Indianapolis tragedy

By John Lyle Belden

The story of the USS Indianapolis, a World War II heavy cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine after delivering essential parts of the first atomic bomb, is well known to Hoosiers. But less known is the fact that the ship’s captain, Charles McVay III, was court-martialed afterward – the only U.S. commander to ever face charges for losing a vessel in wartime.

This is portrayed in the drama “The Failure to Zig-Zag,” presented by Carmel Community Players. The title is also one of the charges against McVay – a violation of the practice of constantly changing course in good weather to avoid being targeted. The play by John B. Ferzacca (which premiered at Indiana Repertory Theatre in 1981) examines the trial, as well as the events that led up to it. It combines courtroom drama with flashbacks to the ship and the survivors’ ordeal, lending elements of horror.

Director Susan Rardin brings this powerful story back to central Indiana with a cast of varying experience, including military veterans, but all dedicated to bringing an important part of history to life. They even got to perform scenes for the annual USS Indianapolis survivors’ reunion.

Tim Latimer portrays McVay with constant unshakable dignity, mingled with disbelief that the Navy to which he had devoted his entire life would so crudely abuse him. Powerful performances run through the entire cast, including Kevin Caraher as Cpt. James Harcourt, the defense counsel; Ron May as Cpt. Dwight Effis, the prosecutor; Robert Fimreite as Rear Adm. David Wall, tasked with keeping the Navy’s reputation spotless; Jeremy Teipen as Lewis Greene, a reporter and grieving father; Brad Staggs as Lt. Cmdr. Alan Brett, the USS Indianapolis Executive Officer; and especially Ron Gotanco as Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto (another unprecedented element of the trial was testimony by the enemy). Other roles, including ship’s crew, were played by Kirk Donlan, Drew Hunter, Hank Kratky, Tyler Marx, Nolan Karwoski, Rich Phipps, Pavel Polochanin, Jeremy Ried, Austin Uebelhor and Joe Wagner.

Wendy and I had an opportunity to read the script over a year ago, and this is one of the plays we had most anticipated. It’s hard to describe the impact of seeing this unfold in front of and around you, all based on actual events, tragedy compounded by travesty – but with the spirit of a survivor throughout.

The term “must-see” gets thrown around a lot (even by us) but this play definitely qualifies. Performances are Thursday through Sunday, July 25-28, at the Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Tickets are selling fast (Thursday is already sold out) at www.carmelplayers.org.

BCP succeeds at ‘Disaster’

By John Lyle Belden

Before we give the world to the Millennials, let’s have one more fun show for the memories of Boomers and Generation X, a silly tribute to 1970s pop music and death-defying films in “Disaster! The Musical,” on stage through June 16 at Buck Creek Players.

This show by Seth Rudetsky (an “ah-mah-zing” personality on Sirius/XM’s Broadway channel) and Jack Plotnick takes on thrillers such as “Earthquake” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” and adds fire, rats, sharks, piranhas and disco.

It’s 1979 New York, and the casino ship Barracuda is holding its grand opening. It only has to float to be legit, so it stays moored to the pier. Owner Tony Delvecchio (Corey Yeaman) sank a lot of money into this venture, so what’s a few cut corners going to hurt? That shaking is just construction on the West End Highway, right?

Chad (Scott A. Fleshood) needs to get back into action with the ladies, so gets friend Scott (Jamison Hemmert) to bring him on the boat as a fellow waiter. But just as he’s getting his “what’s your sign?” working, he runs into Marianne (Allie Buchanan), who left him at the altar, choosing her career as a Times reporter over him.

Others on this journey include disaster expert Professor Ted Scheider (Joe Wagner), who wants everyone off the boat immediately; Sister Mary Downey (Emily Gaddy), out to save souls, but worries for her own when faced with an old temptation; Maury and Shirley Summers (Michael Davis and Laura Duvall-Whitson), a couple in a long, happy marriage on what could be their last voyage; disco diva Levora Verona (Joi Blalock), whose career is on the skids; and ship’s entertainer Jackie Noelle (Jessica Crum Hawkins) and her twins Ben and Lisa (both played by Ava Lusby).

The cast also includes Joshua Cox, Christine King, Paige Land, Carrie Powell, Jason Ryan, and Ben Rockey in dual roles as the dutiful security guard and a rich passenger.

The show manages to balance an absurd, fun atmosphere with a touch of genuine suspense. It unapologetically embraces cheesy elements including puppet killer fish, obviously fake body doubles, and a “CASINO” sign that flips over to signal when the boat has capsized, somehow making it all work. And then there’s the music, as pop hit lyrics are warped to fit the plot, and vice versa. For instance, during the opening number every possible meaning for the words “Hot Stuff” is explored to help set up the various elements of the oncoming calamity.

Fleshood makes ‘70s suave look cool; Yeaman is just sleazy enough for us to enjoy every misfortune he encounters; Wagner makes a likable egghead; Hemmert is charming in a hard-luck way; Duval-Whitson and Davis are sweet enough to induce sugar-shock; Rockey can’t help but steal scenes; and the ladies are top-notch — Buchanan providing a humorous yet respectful reflection of the era’s feminist struggles; Hawkins giving dimension to what could have been just a damsel-in-distress role; Blalock being a sassy force of nature in her own right; and Gaddy making a supporting role look like a star turn.  

Lusby is very impressive in her community theatre debut. The seventh-grader shows a lot of talent and a knack for comedy as she smoothly switches between siblings throughout the show.

Director D. Scott Robinson can be reassured that ironically, in this “Disaster” everything went right. Find the Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Find info and tickets at 317-862-2270 or buckcreekplayers.com.