TOTS hosts a play for the masses (literally)

By John Lyle Belden

“Well, of all things!” A 1959 French play by a celebrated Romanian absurdist about the destructive but seductive effects of mass conformity finds resonance in Indianapolis, U.S.A., in 2017.

No Holds Bard and Catalyst Repertory present Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” on the Second Stage of Theatre on the Square through Aug. 13. The play is set in a near future in which most animals are extinct and most color is gone – frowned upon, even – but the people deal with it in a very orderly black-and-white world in which logic can be argued to the point that facts can mean anything.

Slovenly, drunken Berenger (Zachariah Stonerock) doesn’t fit in. And worse, he has gotten into an argument with his only friend, proud, self-sure Jean (Tristan Ross). But suddenly, a rhinoceros comes charging up the street. Did everyone see what they just saw? Of course not. There are no zoos, there are no circuses, there are no rhinoceroses. Then, a rhinoceros comes charging down the street in the other direction. Thus the question becomes: Is it the same rhinoceros? And are one or both African or Asian? This latter point, and the counting of horns, naturally becomes the most vital issue.

The next day, Berenger comes in late to work, but Daisy (Abbie Wright), who he is sweet on, covers for him with the boss, Mr. Papillon (Josh Ramsey), who, in turn, is upset with Duduard (Tim Fox) and Botard (John Mortell) not getting to work as they argue whether the rhinoceros sighting was real. Duduard has seen the beasts and is more accepting of events; while Botard did not, assumes its a hoax, and if anything did happen, it was part of a grand conspiracy by dark forces. Then Mrs. Beof (Denise Jaeckel) arrives, saying she can’t find her husband, and she’s being pursued by a rhino – when the animal destroys part of the building, she discovers the beast is her husband, somehow transformed.

After this, nearly everyone starts changing into rhinoceroses. As you do.

Stonerock garners our sympathies as the individualist everyman – misunderstood, put down and unsure of what he wants and how to get it. He, and we through him, are never on solid ground as the more sober he gets, the more mad the world becomes.

His castmates deal well with the play’s broadly-drawn characters. Wright embodies the contradicting impulses of dependence and independence women have dealt with in the nearly 50 years of this play’s existence, showing her own strength regardless. Fox is appropriately glib, Mortell brightly brusque. Jaeckel throws herself into her role. Ross, who also directs, takes charge on stage as well; and Ramsey is sharp as ever, including his turn as a “professional logician” who tortures language into submission. The cast is ably rounded out by David Mosedale and Sarah Holland Froehlke – who extracts a lot of laughs from a dead cat.

The script’s length, adapted from three acts to two, and pacing can drag at times, but it’s all worth seeing the eventual “rhinoceros parade.” While this a comedy, with plenty of hilarious situations and comic turns of phrase, beneath the mirth is the hint of something strong and violent that can trample to ruin anything in its path.

Good thing it’s only a play, eh?

Join the herd at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., call 317-685-8687 or get info and tickets at tots.org/rhinoceros/.

Phoenix’s ‘Human Rites’ challenges

By John Lyle Belden

Indy’s Phoenix Theatre has embraced the edgy and controversial since its founding. Still, the new drama, “Human Rites,” by Seth Rozin, under renowned Chicago director Lavina Jadwhani, hits particularly sensitive subjects in today’s global culture – including how truly “global” a perspective can be.

The three-person cast of Rob Johansen, Milicent Wright and Paeton Chavis are total professionals putting in some of their best work. They help to humanize what turns out to be a contentious, eye-opening and challenging argument.

On an American university campus, Michaela (Wright), the college Dean, calls Alan (Johansen), one of her professors, into her office for a meeting. Through their conversation, we find that they once had a sexual affair, but the topic at hand regards complaints about an academic paper that Alan had one of his classes read – a paper, based on his years of research in Africa, that calls into question assumptions regarding female “circumcision” (also referred to as Female Genital Mutilation).

Being an African-American woman, Michaela is appalled at what she reads and challenges the paper’s findings. She also invites a native African graduate student, Lydia (Chavis), with the intent of having her conduct her own study on the topic. The young woman from Sierra Leone is surprised at this and reluctant for reasons of her own. She has much to say, challenging both American academics in the room, as well as all of us watching.

Rozin, who was present for the opening night reception, said the play’s assertions are based on actual research findings. But just as important in this drama is how we as Westerners react to, accept or challenge the data and opinions presented. Lydia’s own perspective calls into question how “civilized” we assume American cultural norms to be.

Since humans are complex creatures, the strong emotions sparked by the characters’ exchange include humor, with quite a few nervous and raucous laughs extracted from their situation. Though you might find yourself with a lot to think about and maybe a bit uncomfortable with those thoughts, this play is worth the challenge – and entertaining in its unconventional way.

Performances continue through Aug. 14 at the 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass. Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

Paige Scott and EclecticPond boldly bringing Bronte to today’s audience

By John Lyle Belden

EclecticPond Theatre Company brushes off a dusty classic with “J. Eyre,” bringing new life to Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel “Jane Eyre” as a contemporary musical.

The style is modern, but the English countryside setting of this gothic romance remains. The actors’ clothes evoke the period rather than copy it. In fact, the style of this production – through July 30 at Grove Haus near Indy’s Fountain Square – focuses primarily on the story of relationships and the people swept up in them.

The seven actors never leave the stage, with all providing narration, singularly or in harmony, throughout. Two of them each portray a single role, Devan Mathias as Jane and Tim Hunt as Edward Rochester, while the others – Miranda Nehrig, Mary Margaret Montgomery, Abby Gilster, Chelsea Leis and Carrie Neal – chameleon from one supporting character to another.

Written and directed by Paige Scott, the musical’s story largely follows the book: Orphan Jane endures a wretched childhood, including abuse at the hands of her aunt and cousin, and the death of her only school friend (Montgomery) in a typhus outbreak. She then takes a job as governess for a girl in the care of crude, spoiled playboy Rochester. But Jane falls in love with him – realizing her feelings as he prepares to marry gold-digger Blanche (Nehrig) – and when it looks like she will finally find happiness, she finds out his terrible secret. (In case you didn’t read or don’t remember the novel from your literature classes, I’ll leave it there.)

The sung narrative interludes between scenes aid the flow of the story without interrupting it, and relieves one of the need to have read it beforehand to understand its events. Scott’s songs feel like they’ve always been a part of this classic, rather than freshly written. Her captivating adaptation of the novel suggests the script for an autumn Oscar-bait movie. Add in excellent performances by the cast and keyboard accompanist Jacob Stensberg, and this is the kind of show that, if presented Off-Broadway, would soon find itself under the big lights.

You can find “J. Eyre” at 1001 Hosbrook Street; and tickets and info at eclecticpond.org.

CrazyLake’s ‘Chaperone’ shines

By John Lyle Belden

CrazyLake Acting Company in Greenfield has tackled musicals and comedies, so naturally, it now stages “The Drowsy Chaperone: A Musical Within a Comedy.” And it is worth the drive out to the heart of Hancock County.

(Full disclosure: John & Wendy are long-time friends and supporters of CrazyLake director Christine Schaefer [who also directs KidsPlay Inc. children’s theatre], and John used to work with one of this show’s stars, Noelle Steele, editor of the Greenfield Daily Reporter. Still – this is a good show!)

A “Man in Chair” (Trever Brown) speaks to us enthusiastically about his love of musical theater, and especially his recording of the mythical 1928 classic, “The Drowsy Chaperone.” As he plays the record, the musical comes to life in his apartment. He picks up the needle from time to time to explain to us the context and what became of the original actors.

The plot of the show within the show deals with a wedding to be hosted at the lavish home of Mrs. Tottendale (Carie McMichael), who is attended by faithful Underling (Ross McMichael). The groom is handsome oil heir Robert Martin (Austin Fisher), accompanied by Best Man, George (Matt Little); the bride is popular “Follies” star Janet Van De Graaff (Elisabeth Orr), whose Chaperone (Steele) gets “drowsy” from the contents of her flask. Show producer Feldzeig (Jake Hobbs) – shadowed by ditzy chorine Kitty (Alexandra Kern) – has to get Janet out of the wedding and back on the stage or gangster enforcers (Corey Yeaman and Jim Vetters), disguised as chefs, will pound him into their next pastry. Also in attendance is famous Latin lover, Adolpho (Luke Agee), to advance the plot. Deus ex machina duty goes to Trix the Aviatrix (Jamie McDowell).

From the start and throughout there is an atmosphere of silly fun, making the story within enjoyable. Brown easily fits the Man’s sweater; he helps us feel his devotion to and obsession with this stage gem, giving even the most odd moments and trite old lyrics weight as we see the musical through one who has studied it intensely.

For their part, the musical’s cast pull off the show excellently. While I note that this is an all-volunteer community theatre, Shaefer’s work sets a high standard – and, with the help of musical director and choreographer Amy Studabaker, they achieve it.

Steele, Orr, Fisher, Little, the McMichaels and Hobbs aquit themselves like pros. Agee goes big without being over-the-top, and if there were awards CrazyLake could qualify for, I’d nominate Kern for Best Supporting in making Kitty’s moments stand out.

For the fun, the laughs, the old-time stage nostalgia, fly on down to Greenfield – at the Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. – and see “The Drowsy Chaperone” in one of its remaining performances, Friday and Saturday (July 21-22). Tickets are $10 each at crazylake.com.

Make note of nutty ‘Nothing’

By John Lyle Belden

The title “Much Ado About Nothing,” William Shakespeare’s comedy now produced by Indy’s Khaos Company Theatre, makes it sound like an Olde English version of “Seinfeld.” While its plot is as easy to follow as a sitcom, the title is more of a pun – “noting” in Shakespeare’s time was to overhear gossip, which happens here with “much ado” indeed. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

In a modernish Italy that can only exist on stage, Leonato (James Mannan), owner of the estate where the play is set, will give his daughter Hero (Kyrsten Lyster) to Claudio (Ben Rockey), a soldier in the company of Don Pedro (Donovan Whitney), who has arranged the match.

Meanwhile, Hero’s cousin, Beatrice (Kayla Lee), has nothing nice to say about men and marriage – I checked, this was written after “Taming of the Shrew,” so consider her a more-refined “Kate” – and the main target of her venom is boisterous braggart Benedick (Daniel Dale Clymer). Sensing that these two would be suited for a different kind of sparks between them, Leonato, Pedro and Claudio, along with Hero and her companions Margaret (Kathleen Cox) and Ursula (Kaylee Spivey-Good), conspire to get them thinking each is loved by the other.

Also meanwhile, Don Pedro’s brother, Don John (James Crawley), our villain, sets out to ruin everything with the help of drunken Borachio (Jake Peacock). The main thing standing in their way is Dogberry (Linda Grant) – the Barney Fife of Shakespearean Italy – her lieutenant Verges (Nikki Sayer) and faithful Watchmen (Aidan and Addison Lucas).

And “mark that I am an ass” if I don’t mention other cast members Bradley Good, Case Jacobus and Steven C. Rose, as well as that felt Comrade on Peacock’s left arm.

The jokes and barbs hold up, even with the original text. Hero, being a teenager, does blurt out “hashtag” at moments of stress, and you get latter-day clothes with sword scabbards, but it all works. Crawley should be commended for the best evil grin this side of the Grinch, and Rockey is great at playing goofy and clumsy, yet lovable. Clymer is as sharp as the blade at his side, and Lee is simultaneously beautiful and a force to contend with.

Also, Grant and Sayer totally make the corset-and-riding-crop look work.

Under the direction of KCT’s Anthony Nathan, this classic romp is truly something to make “much ado” about. Remaining performances are Friday (pay-what-you-want night) and Saturday, July 21-22, at 1775 N. Sherman Drive. Get info and tickets at kctindy.com.

Catch ‘Big Fish’ at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Nothing is as entertaining as a good story, and in “Big Fish,” on stage through July 23 at Footlite Musicals, we meet a man whose life is full of them.

This recent Broadway musical, based on the 2003 Tim Burton film (and 1998 Daniel Wallace novel), is Footlite’s Young Adult production (with a couple of older actors), directed by Kathleen Clarke Horrigan.

Edward Bloom (Kyle Cherry) believes one should be the hero of his story, and tells his young son, Will (Rocco Meo), one fantastical tale after another. But by the time he grows up, adult Will (Drew Bryson) sees his father as a mystery shrouded in self-made myths. Then, as Edward’s health starts to fail, Will quests for the truth – and finds a new understanding of the man who met a witch, befriended a giant, joined the circus and saved a town.

Edward’s stories come to life through the magic of the stage. We see him encounter a mermaid (Tessa Gibbons), and later the witch (Tayler Seymour) who tells him how he will die. Rather than despair, the news gives him confidence to face any dangerous situation knowing “that’s not how it ends.” So he bravely confronts Karl the Giant (Zachary Hoover) and has himself shot out of a cannon so he can meet and propose to beautiful redheaded Sandra (Regan Desautels).

The show features some memorable songs (“Be the Hero,” “Fight the Dragons,” “Stranger,” “Start Over”) and dance breaks – the Alabama Stomp is guaranteed to bring fish to the surface – as well as solid performances. Aside from actors listed so far, notable cast members include Samantha Russell as Jenny Hill, Edward’s high school sweetheart; Noah Nordman as Don Price, the classmate who returned to Ashton, Ala., after college; and Jeff Reeves, showing the youngsters how it’s done as circus boss Amos Calloway.

Footlite’s production is a beautiful tribute to the bond between fathers and sons, strong even when frayed, as well as the importance of stories and the power of love. Just don’t be surprised if your heart hesitates whenever you see daffodils.

During the run of the show, there is a fundraiser in the lobby benefiting cancer charities.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St., just north of downtown Indy; call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

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 villian. 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.