DivaFest: An odd Irish ‘three men and a baby’

This is part of the 2019 Diva Fest, presented by IndyFringe at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, through April 21. All shows are by women playwrights, presented as one-hour one-acts at a Fringe price. For information and tickets, see www.indyfringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Kate Duffy Sim once again blesses us with a brilliant parody of the British sitcom, “Father Ted,” which relates the quirky lives of priests living on a remote island off the Irish coast.

This time, in “Who’s Minding the Snapper,” Father Ned and company are visited by a very pregnant American woman. The baby quickly arrives, but the mother disappears — can Ned, dimwitted Father Dermott and drunken Father Finn successfully care for the little “snapper”?

Presented by Clerical Error Productions and directed by David Malloy, the surreal atmosphere and comic potential are enhanced by “cross-gender casting,” as the program put it. Sim ably plays Ned, while Bridget Schlebecker is a hoot as Finn. Kyrsten Lyster is outstanding as Dermott, displaying deft skill at the hard task of playing a “stupid” character so cleverly. Manny Casillas charms as the housekeeper Mrs. O’Boyle, while Anthony Logan Nathan is something to behold as brash, devious Mrs. McShane, who tends the home of a rival priest.

Case Jacobus is the “girl in trouble,” while actual rapper Nate Burner plays her rap-star boyfriend. “N8” also performs the opening theme, and spun some rhymes at curtain call to introduce the cast.

Hilarious with the right amount of heart, you’ll need to do penance if you miss this one. Performances are 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 5:30 p.m. Sunday (April 20-21).

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DivaFest: Bittersweet ‘Tomato’

This is part of the 2019 Diva Fest, presented by IndyFringe at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, through April 21. All shows are by women playwrights, presented as one-hour one-acts at a Fringe price. For information and tickets, see www.indyfringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In “I Say Tomato, You Say Cheese,” by MaryAnne Mathews, Tom Harrison is superbly charming as Joe Carpenter, an 85-year-old man living alone — aside from the spirit of his recently-passed wife, Annie (Wendy Brown) — as best he can.

Joe’s daughter Sarah (Laura Baltz) is getting concerned, as he tends to forget and lose track of things, and keeps getting into accidents while driving. The doctor (Stefanie Patterson) confirms that his cognitive abilities are indeed on the decline.

It doesn’t help the situation that there are constantly scammers out to take advantage of the elderly. The voice of the “IRS agent” on the phone Joe can deal with, with great humor. But the fast-talking roofing contractor (Joe Maratea) is a different matter.

Mathews’ gentle drama is an interesting look at this serious situation with characters we can relate to, or even feel we’re related to. The title refers to a family story melding the old song with the meal of tomato soup and toasted cheese — like this play, comfort food for the soul.

Remaining performances are 8:15 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday (April 19-20).

DivaFest: Oh, ‘Dear’

This is part of the 2019 Diva Fest, presented by IndyFringe at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, through April 21. All shows are by women playwrights, presented as one-hour one-acts at a Fringe price. For information and tickets, see www.indyfringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In “Dear Mavis,” by Enid Cokinos, there are big changes happening at the Rustbelt Herald-Times.

The newspaper’s chief editor has stepped down, replaced by the owner’s son, “Biz” Underhill (Spencer Elliott). The young man, fresh from college, wants to make changes, taking aim at the paper’s longtime advice columnist, Mavis (Forba Shepherd). He has her team up with young blogger Mique’ (Ashley Elliott) to write a new point-counterpoint column, and daily rather than weekly. This will not turn out well.

Holly Stults is Luella, Underhill’s assistant and Mavis’s dear friend; and David Mosedale is the elder Underhill, who comes in to clean up the inevitable mess.

Shepherd radiates dignity and wisdom as the disciple of Miss Manners who always has the right thing to say, and doesn’t mind using an old typewriter to say it. Spencer Elliott — .also the play’s director — contrasts well as the guy with big ideas but little sense. Ashley Elliott’s turn as a clueless Millennial edges towards caricature but gets to learn a bit towards the end.

Having been a newspaper journalist, seeing the industry’s changes first-hand, I felt at first that Cokinos had written a work of horror. But for those who don’t bleed India ink, this is a fun look at how sometimes the old ways are best, and can still win through.

Remaining performances are 7 p.m. Friday and 7:15 p.m. Saturday (April 19-20).

DivaFest: Truly inspiring

This is part of the 2019 Diva Fest, presented by IndyFringe at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, through April 21. All shows are by women playwrights, presented as one-hour one-acts at a Fringe price. For information and tickets, see www.indyfringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In “aMUSEd,” by Megan Ann Jacobs, one of the lesser-known Greek Muses — Sebastian, the Muse of Comedy (Kyle Dorsch) — breaks his own rule against staying too long, remaining with his latest charge, author Anita (Becky Schlomann), until the moment she passes. He promises to finish their last work with a new human, but in his grief, chases off every person who moves in.

Enter Nikki (Kyrsten Lyster), a woman as determined to stay as Sebastian is for her to leave — New York apartments at this price don’t come along every day. The landlord, Tyler (Jerry Beasley), is just grateful someone is staying in his “haunted” flat.

Grant Nagel plays Nikki’s fiance, Ryan, a victim of Sebastian’s pranks, and Ilandia Johnson is Kasey, a local police officer tired of being called to arrest a “trespasser” she cannot see.

Jacob’s sweet story excellently showcases the comic talents of manic Beasley, wonderfully frustrated Lyster, and Dorsch’s acid wit like a young Jack Benny. Schlomann’s presence gives this all the right amount of heart.

Remaining performance is 4:45 p.m. Saturday, April 20.

Challenges of modern farm life in Still’s ‘Amber Waves’ at IRT

By John Lyle Belden

The story of the Olson family of rural Indiana is like that of many farmers across America, which is part of what makes “Amber Waves” by James Still such an important play.

Mr. Still, the playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, where this drama plays on the upperstage through April 28, took inspiration from his own upbringing on a Kansas farm, which his family has since lost.

The Olsons face the very real danger of losing what generations of kin had built, even as they witness an old friend’s farm, and its family’s possessions, going up for auction. Mike (Torsten Hillhouse), the only one of the “Olson boys” to stay on the farm, tries to only think of what chores and repairs must be done in the coming days, to keep the faith that it will be enough, and to search the skies for long-overdue rain.

Mike’s wife, Penny (Mary Bacon), is totally devoted both to her husband and their vocation. She largely succeeds in staying positive, even as unpaid bills pile up, but teenage son Scott (William Brosnahan) and 12-year-old daughter Deb (Jordan Pecar) become increasingly aware that something’s wrong.

Much of the story involves Deb’s point of view. She works for elderly neighbor Johnny Apple (Charles Dumas), who always seems to find more odd jobs for her to do, giving her a few more much-needed dollars. Her situation also strains her relationship with best friend, Julie (Riley Iaria), from a more wealthy family. Meanwhile, life goes on, with the County Fair, school activities, the Homecoming game — normal aspects of country living.

The atmosphere is made complete with music and songs by Tim Grimm and Jason Wilber, performed onstage by Grimm and Rachel Eddy.

First performed in 2000, the play has been updated, including tech references, but the core story is as current now as it was then. There is even a mention of recent tariffs affecting crop prices. It tugs at the heartstrings in a genuine manner, as we see a family experience what feels like a lifetime in a single year.

Directed by Lisa Rothe, the performances feel natural, like these actors truly are family, or that Hillhouse really stepped off a tractor before coming onstage. Bacon is outstanding as a mother finding the multiple roles of a farm wife almost overwhelming, but persevering through willpower and love.

The simple wooden stage set and old latch-handle refrigerator at the back suggest a timeless, well-worn comfortable setting (kudos to scenic designer Narelle Sissons). Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger makes clever use of glass-jar lighting. Grimm grounds this production with his music, singing and connection to the original production; Eddy provides a perfect compliment, an Appalachian virtuoso of various string instruments, and a beautiful voice.

The IRT is located at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, near Circle Centre. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

‘The Golden Girls,’ like you’ve never seen them before

By John Lyle Belden

The Loud and Fast Funny gang is at it again, presenting mature ladies with “mature” content in “The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes.”

This mostly-drag parody of the old hit TV show was originally written by David Cerda and developed by Hell in a Handbasket Productions of Chicago. LAFF are local actors, presenting this hour-long treat at the cabaret second stage of The District Theatre, managed by IndyFringe.

The mood is set as the audience enters to the sounds of classic television show themes from the 1970s and ‘80s, interspersed with the audio of commercials from the era (remember L’eggs panty hose?), as well as network jingles from NBC, the original TV home of the Girls.

Then, it’s the strains of “Thank You For Being a Friend,” and we meet our small-screen friends: Rose (Jim Banta), Blanche (Pat Mullen), Dorothy (Dave Ruark) and Sophia (Olivia Schaperjohn). They launch into two half-hour episodes, with words and innuendo that the network censors would certainly not allow, joined by Christian Condra as a handsome doctor in the first part, and Jazzercise Jeff in the second. There is no nudity, just a couple of edgy costume choices — but still, don’t take the kids.

While a touch raunchy — like some grandmas get when young’uns aren’t around — the plots are also funny and entertaining, much like if the Girls were a show on HBO. In the first, silly Rose deals with an episode of restless-leg syndrome as she prepares for a big dance contest. In the second, the hot aerobics instructor has a thing for Blanche — and Sophia? — while Dorothy makes an attempt to show her “nice” side.

Between the episodes, a swingin’ Condra comes out to host a game show in which two audience members get a shot at a genuine Golden Girls-themed prize.

A fun Fringe-length show at a Fringe ticket price, performances are Fridays and Saturdays, two shows each night, through April 27. Get info and tickets at indyfringe.org

LAFF Shows also staged the recent production of “Hold On To Your Butts,” and will present another Recent Cutbacks-produced show, “Fly, You Fools” — a parody shot-by-shot re-creation of “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” (in one hour) — May 3-25. Get to know the troupe at facebook.com/LAFFshows.

Phoenix: Faith, belief, and relationships tested in ‘The Christians’

By John Lyle Belden

On my own spiritual path, I have found there are generally two kinds of people in regards to faith: Those who find comfort in certainty — some things are always true and must be believed — and those who find comfort in doubt, that there are things we’ll never fully know, and we can question them and change our minds.

But, can both points of view get along in the same body of believers? That is the central dilemma of “The Christians,” the Lucas Hnath play now on stage at the Phoenix Theatre.

An American megachurch has everything going its way. It is growing and thriving with a joyful congregation and popular ministers, and it has just paid off the debts on its huge building. During the celebration, its leader, Pastor Paul (Grant Goodman) delivers a sermon that shocks his Evangelical staff and members: He no longer believes in Hell as a place of eternal punishment.

He even backs this idea up with scripture (this is an actual subject of debate in progressive churches). He is then challenged by his Associate Pastor (Ray Hutchins), who leaves and starts his own church.

The “cracks” that Paul had hoped to fix with his hopeful message instead widen as church members start an exodus to the rival congregation. This worries the megachurch board, represented by Elder Jay (Charles Goad). The congregants have their own questions, especially choir member Jenny (Kelsey Leigh Miller). And Paul’s wife, Elisabeth (Jen Johansen) has her own views on the subject.

The two types of believers find it nearly impossible to communicate, with those of certainty speaking of what is “right and wrong,” and the pastor, feeling free to doubt, speaking of what is just and merciful.

The narrative is much like a recollection by Pastor Paul — with “and then this happened”-style notes — done in the overall style of a church service with the audience as congregation (hymn lyrics are projected so we can sing along) and a choir that includes Miller, Bambi Alridge, Aaniyah Anderson, MaryBeth Walker Bailey, Adam Blevins, Caryn Flowers, Abby Gilster, Bridgette Ludlow, Marlana Haig and Dave Pelsue. Thus this show relates the hard lessons for Paul and those around him, and a parable for us all.

Goodman, Hutchins and Johansen deliver convincing performances of where each character stands on the Word. Miller and Goad ably portray people caught in the middle, each in their own way.

There is a lot to unpack when one comes away from this play, questions of faith and doctrine, of how much one should be willing to compromise, and of what happens when it’s revealed your perfect organization was too good to be true. It delivers the message without preaching, just a look at fallible humans wrestling with the answers — kinda like a Bible story.

Amen.

“The Christians” runs through April 14 on the Russell main stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.