We’ve got a hot lead on a play at the Fringe

By John Lyle Belden

New local company Fat Turtle Theatre makes a bold debut with its production of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the Pulitzer-winning drama by David Mamet, directed by company co-founder Aaron Cleveland.

For those unfamiliar, the play is about real estate salesmen in a high-pressure Chicago office in the early 1980s. For those who have seen the 1992 film, note that Blake (a/k/a “F— You,” played by Alec Baldwin) was a part written for the movie, and does not appear in the play. One can presume, prior to the opening scene, that Blake already made his famous speech that the bosses have declared a sales contest with a Cadillac as first prize, and third place means you’re fired. The best sales leads are going to the best salesmen, and office manager Williamson (played here by Ryan Reddick) is in charge of doling them out.

The play opens with Williamson being berated and cajoled by past top-seller Shelly “the Machine” Levene (Doug Powers), who feels he deserves the top Glengarry leads. We next meet frustrated fellow salesmen Dave Moss (Luke McConnell) and George Aaronow (Jeff Maess), who consider more drastic measures to get ahead. Finally, we see top seller Richard Roma (Tristan Ross), working up to a sale with his latest mark, timid James Lingk (Rex Riddle).

The second act begins with the office having suffered a burglary, investigated by Detective Baylen (Jason Page). As the whole ensemble flows in and out of the room, the drama intensifies and we learn a lot more than who wins the new car.

Speaking of hot leads, these roles are among the most coveted among male actors when this play revives on Broadway, and Fat Turtle has found a worthy cast for the Indy boards. Powers gives his all in the most high-profile role, taking Shelly to every emotional extreme while staying believable and relatable.

Ross makes good use of his talent for Shakespearean patter to deliver Roma’s pseudo-philosophical soliloquies that he uses to lull prospective buyers into being receptive to his pitch. We can easily buy that this is the best man at selling patches of dirt to insecure souls with money.

Maess embodies the not-getting-any-younger quiet desperation of Aaronow, while McConnell expresses the more desperate and impulsive urge to get ahead at any cost.

Riddle does mouse-y well, and we can’t help but feel for him. Page’s performance just gets stronger as his character gets increasingly frustrated with the room full of patience-testing egos. Reddick’s Williamson is just an unapologetic a-hole, well played without compromise, and we have to respect him for that.

There’s a chuckle to be had here and there, and the marvelous absurdity of what grown men are willing to say to each other under stress – or just to keep a sucker in the sale. And, of course, be prepared for lots of salty language. This is drama at its best, a half-dozen men sweating out what could be one of the best or, more likely, worst days of their miserable lives. You owe it to yourself to close the sale on some tickets for this show before it closes on Oct. 15.

Performances are at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., just east of the College, Mass Ave., St. Clair intersection. Visit www.IndyFringe.org for tickets.

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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.

Footlite presents a class ‘Act’

By John Lyle Belden

I only have a vague memory of seeing the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film, “Sister Act.” But you don’t have to have seen it at all to appreciate the Broadway musical version, presented by local talent at Footlite Musicals. Goldberg’s only connection to the stage edition was as producer, otherwise the show was stripped down to the general plot and rebuilt with original songs (by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater) and its own sense of fun.

Set in 1970s Philadelphia, aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier (Morgan Webster) witnesses her manager and boyfriend, Curtis (Ollice Aurelius Nickson), commit murder. With the help of Eddie (Donald Marter), a cop with a crush on Deloris, she is hidden with a cloister of nuns at a church with its own problems. Attendance at services has been falling, and the choir is horrible – apparently each sister sings in a different key. Mother Superior (Karen Frye Knotts) prays fervently for help, but can this spoiled foul-mouthed lounge entertainer be the answer?

Webster seems a bit over the top at first, but that’s just Deloris being herself. As she, in disguise as a fellow nun, wins over the sisters, she grows on us as well. Knotts is maternally likable as the one old-fashioned resister to the choir’s new soulful style. The rest are mostly reminiscent of the quietly hip sisters of “Nunsense,” especially Sister Mary Patrick (Nina Stilabower) and shy postulant Sister Mary Robert (Bailey Jane Williams), who it’s fun to watch come out of her shell. Nickson is equal parts charming and menacing as he hunts for the woman whose testimony could put him away, accompanied by a goofy trio of henchmen, played by Daniel Draves, Josh Vander Missen and Jonathan Studdard. Marter makes the unlikely romantic hero “Sweaty” Eddie a character to root for. And W. Michael Davidson is a blessing as the church pastor, Monsignor O’Hara.

It’s all good music and good times, with a little drama, as this “Sister Act” makes a joyful noise and “Spreads the Love Around.” Performances are weekends through Oct. 8 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit Footlite.org.

Phoenix premiere: Search for understanding takes musical’s author ‘Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Nothing is what it appears in the Fun Home. Even the name disguises its purpose, being short for Funeral Home – but that doesn’t stop the kids who live there from writing it an upbeat commercial jingle. The house is immaculate, orderly and almost museum-like – an elaborate facade for the psychological chaos in its residents.

One of those kids, Alison Bechdel, grows up to be a popular queer cartoonist. As she reflects back on her unusual childhood and coming of age, she wants to write and draw it all as it really happened – not as she wants to remember it. That struggle plays out in the Tony-winning musical, “Fun Home” (based on her autobiographical graphic novel), making its Indiana premiere at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

We meet today’s Alison (Cynthia Collins), young Alison (Amelia Wray) and, later, Alison in college (Ivy Moody).

The girl longs for attention from, and the teen connection to, her father, Bruce (Eric J. Olson), while helping mother, Helen (Emily Ristine), and brothers, John and Christian (Jacob McVay and Aiden Shurr), keep their home orderly. She finds herself having feelings she’s not sure others understand – she hates wearing dresses, she sees beauty in a muscular woman in short hair and a plaid shirt – unaware that in his own way, Dad understands.

How well he knew, and his true thoughts and feelings, Alison will never know.

In college, the young woman realizes what now seems obvious; she is a lesbian. She researches in books about sexuality, then learns hands-on from Joan (Teneh B.C. Karimu). After coming out to her parents, she gets their truth in return. And within weeks, her father is dead.

Our trio of Alisons excellently bring the story to life, especially charming Wray. Olson has a knack for making every role seem like it was written for him – this is no exception. Ristine perfectly portrays the longsuffering wife and mother, able to show so much in just an expression; her song, when Helen feels free to let her true feelings show, is the kind of moment that awards are given for.

Karimu presents the steadying influence of a good friend. And Brandon Alstott completes the cast as different characters, including Roy – a man who’s like an uncle to the kids, and much more to Bruce.

It’s easy to ride along on this emotional journey, because Alison isn’t the hero of her story (and neither can her father be, no matter how much she wishes it), she just wants to understand what makes her feel so different from the rest of the world. She’s still the girl who wants her Dad to lift her up, and through her search lifts him to examine the facets she can’t see clearly, no matter how hard she tries. She sees in her parents so many opportunities lost and abandoned, wondering what that bodes for her.

For all who feel different – maybe “queer” in either the traditional or LGBTQ sense – this show (presented in a single movie-length act) is highly recommended. Is it “fun”? Hard to say, but it can certainly feel like home.

This musical opens the final season at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) before the Phoenix moves to its new downtown location. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 22. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

ATI’s truly beautiful ‘Bird’

By John Lyle Belden

La Cage - Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Tim Hunt, Kenny Shepard and Don Farrell - photo credit - Zach Rosing
From left, Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Don Farrell (as ZaZa), Kenny Shepherd and Tim Hunt on the stage of “La Cage aux Folles,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana at Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 1. (Zach Rosing photo)

Hours after seeing the musical “La Cage aux Folles” (literally “The Birdcage,” its original film was also popularly mistranslated “Birds of a Feather”) presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through Oct. 1, Wendy and I discussed whether this was truly a perfect performance.

Of course, anything can and does happen in live theatre, but without going into pointless nitpicking (issues only we noticed or that evaporate between weekends), this production can only be described as flawless – like the faux female stars of the nightclub of the show’s title, a hotspot on the French Riviera in the late 1970s.

Bill Book and Don Farrell are wonderful as the couple who own, run and live above La Cage, its emcee Georges and star diva (the Great ZaZa) Albin, respectively. Book is in top form, and Farrell is definitely the leading lady. Good thing, too – as the role of saucy butler/maid Jacob has “scene-stealer” written all over it, and Daniel Klingler plays it to the limit, with uproarious results.

Our happy couple is thrown into turmoil when their son, Jean-Michel (Sean Haynes) comes home engaged to – a woman! – Anne (Devan Mathias), the daughter of anti-gay government minister Mr. Dindon (Ken Klingenmeier). To make matters worse, Dindon and his wife (Mary Jane Waddell) would be arriving with Anne for dinner at their house the next day. The young man’s plan is for Georges to “straighten” up and for Albin to stay out of sight – but, of course, nothing ever goes as planned.

Again, great performances by handsome Haynes (Wendy said she could get lost in his eyes) and bubbly Mathias. Klingenmeier is appropriately stiff, and Waddell so nice as the wife who secretly yearns to cut loose; the couple also smoothly play the proprietors of a local cafe.

Speaking of supporting roles, the versatile John Vessels has fun here, especially as stage manager Francis. And then there are the beautiful Les Cagelles: singing, dancing “illusions” played by Greg Grimes, Michael Humphrey, Tim Hunt and Kenny Shepard. Chez magnifique!

Judy Fitzgerald completes the cast, shining as fun-loving restaurateur and welcome friend Jacqueline.

La Cage aux Folles” was first a French play in 1973, then a film in 1978, and brought to Broadway (adapted by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman) in the early ’80s. You’d think that after 40 years, a story like this would feel quaint and dated; alas, it’s as relevant as ever. This production, directed by Larry Raben with choreography by Carol Worcel, lets the weight of its subtext float on an atmosphere of fun. Scene changes are swirling dance routines, a laugh is never far from the tear, and the arch-conservative does get his well-deserved comeuppance. The songs include timeless anthems “I Am What I Am” and “The Best of Times (is Now),” each as defiant in their own way as they are memorable – and wonderfully executed here.

It’s a good time to go “bird” watching: Performances are at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets at thecenterpresents.org. Find info on this and other ATI shows at atistage.org or facebook.com/ActorsTheatreOfIndiana.

What’s so funny about peace, love and misunderstanding?

By John Lyle Belden

Anton Chekhov called his 1895 play, “The Seagull,” a “comedy in four acts” – which makes one wonder about Russians’ sense of humor.

But the play, adapted and directed by Casey Ross and presented by her Catalyst Repertory company – shaved down to two acts (one-two / intermission / three-four) – does have some light moments. Good drama always has its share of humor, and its “comic” elements are further reflected in an almost Shakespearean level of unrequited love among the characters.

The setting is a peaceful rural Russian estate, with its nice house belonging to aging civil servant Pyotr Sorin (Dennis Forkel) and a lake, near which his nephew Konstantin Treplev (Taylor Cox) presents a play he has written, starring his girlfriend, local girl Nina (Ann Marie Elliott).

Treplev sees himself in the shadow of his famous actress mother, Irina Arkadina (Nan Macy), and her popular friends. “I have no discernible talent,” he laments. But to prove himself, he is determined to write a “new form” of theatre, simultaneously rebelling against and surpassing the great Arkadina. Before an audience of locals, family and his mother’s guest, famous writer Boris Trigorn (Thomas Cardwell), the premiere flounders thanks to Treplev’s abstract symbolism – inspiring heckling from Arkadina – and Nina’s amateurish acting.

Later Trigorn flatters Nina, encouraging her dream of becoming a professional actor, and winning her away from Treplev. Meanwhile, beautiful-in-black Masha (Emily Bohn) is in love with Treplev, while poor schoolmaster Medivenko (Bradford Reilly) is in love with Masha. Paulina (Kyrsten Lyster) is in an affair with Yevgeny Dorn (Craig Kemp), a kindly doctor with a song in his heart, but she is married to very unromantic estate caretaker Ilya Shamrayeff (Anthony Nathan).

While good acting is essential to any play, the presentation of these characters is all Chekhov has given us – no wild action or deep mystery. Fortunately, Ross knows some very talented actors.

Cox is great at playing the tortured soul, and he has plenty to work with here. A hundred-twenty years later, even in Russia, Treplev would have medication and perhaps a therapist to aid his issues. In this world, he must wade through on his own with little help from his mother – she brushes off his suicide attempt as a silly phase, afraid to leave the limelight world that is the only place she feels happy. Macy turns on the charm, while showing the depth of her character’s shallowness.

Elliott is brilliant as usual, mastering not only all the subtle facets of Nina, but managing to act “bad” in an entertaining way. Cardwell reveals a man wrestling with the life his genius has given him – “I have no rest from myself” – but still subject to base desires. In one of the play’s most famous scenes, he presents the idea of “destroying” the young woman, saying it directly to her. But blinded by her pursuit of fame, Nina allows it to happen, not realizing until it is too late what she has become.

And a shout out to Nathan for nearly stealing scenes with Shamreyeff’s socially clumsy moments, and for making the death of the title bird more funny than it should be.

So: When you get what you’ve been chasing after – or what you settled for – is it worth it? That would be the thematic question at work here, and while the answers aren’t definitive, they do feel honest to the harsh world we live in, wherever we are in time or on the globe. And when the circumstances permit, we can get in a laugh or two.

“The Seagull” has performances Sept. 15-17 and 22-24 at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. For info and tickets, visit Facebook.com/CatalystRepertory or the company’s website.

IndyFringe: Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace

By John Lyle Belden

This is the kind of show you go to Fringe festivals for: Entertaining, immersive, funny – and you might win a prize!

Drag diva Betsy Carmichael is the self-proclaimed “First Lady of Bingo,” and for the most part the show has everyone in the audience playing rounds of the game, called by her accompanist Jerry Mosey as “Chip.” But she spices it up with planned responses to many of the numbers she gets everyone to call out. Or maybe she has a little story to tell. Or maybe some lucky “player” gets to craft a good-luck charm right on the stage. Whatever she’s up to, she’s always charming.

And be ready when the number called ends in 4: that’s “four – candy store,” when Betsy throws candy.

She only had three performances during the recently-concluded IndyFringe. Hopefully, since she hails from Chicago, she’ll make the trip back down again soon.

Info at www.BetsyBingo.com.