Phoenix: ‘Love’ in an unusual place

By John Lyle Belden

True story: In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, an area bigger than many countries, there is a vast sea of human-generated garbage. Now, what if a solitary seabird called Nigel, who lived on a remote island off New Zealand (also true), instead occupied a tiny patch of land in those plastic-infested waters?

This sets the stage for “Love Bird,” a play by K.T. Peterson at the Phoenix Theatre. Note that I write “solitary” above rather than “lonely,” as in this fantasy, Nigel (portrayed by Scot Greenwell) constructed a couple of companions from the washed-up flotsam.

Elegant Saundra he adores, and wishes would return his affection. Nigel creates an extravagant nest, and even composes a song for her on his homemade instrument. But also, there’s easygoing Jessica, who likes to hang around in a nearby tree (a shrubbery, she corrects in his head). She’s the kind of friend who is easy to talk to.

“What a world we create for ourselves,” Nigel remarks, with no sense of irony.

He has a ring-pop secreted in a shell-covered box for his true love. The nearby pod of whales converse mainly with each other, so Nigel instead argues with some oncoming storm clouds. Suddenly, another flesh-and-blood seabird appears.

Norman (Bill Simmons) has different plumage, a gregarious personality, and likes to draw in the sand – mostly portraits of eggs. He comes bearing a gift of clothespins. He also seems to have been observing Nigel from afar, which is bothersome. 

Concerns are put aside, however, as Nigel sets up a wonderful dinner party for Norman, a double-date with Saundra and Jessica. Eventually, the storm butts in, and changes everything.

The portrayals of these birds (Nigel is a gannet, Norman is unspecified but resembles a brown boobie) are fascinating and highly entertaining. With the help of creative makeup, clownish clothing by Beck Jones, and movement to mimic creatures not used to walking everywhere, what we get is anthropomorphic but not human. Rather than seeing bird costumes revealing the personality within, we observe pure personalities with the hint of an avian exterior.

I wanted to love this play more than I did. There was much affection for Nigel among the audience, partly because Greenwell is just so darn adorable. In fact, it is the stellar talents of both him and Simmons – who provides contrast, tension, and eventually revelation – that elevate this performance above issues I had with the text. The human-relatable metaphors get muddled, as the characters make references both to being birds (“when I was a fledgling”) and being stuck in an office job with a “Karen.” And is it really that necessary for a bird to have a boat?

One obvious point in the play is the ubiquitousness of the garbage, from which Nigel makes his world,* and that Norman is tempted to eat. (This brings on one hilarious literal “gag.”) The fact that it goes without comment should perhaps be distressing to us, as our junk becomes “normal” to the creatures who live there. But in its colorful arrangement by set designer Kyle Ragsdale, and the way Nigel/Greenwell relishes its pieces, it comes across more quaint than invasive.

Directed by Jolene Mentink Moffatt, with the quirky weirdness you often get in plays like this (which has long been a hallmark of the Phoenix), this romantic comedy like no other might not be for everyone. But it is worth a look for its visuals and performances. At the core, it’s just a couple of bird-brains looking for companionship, and we can all relate to that.

One weekend of performances remain, through Feb. 20 on the mainstage at 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at PhoenixTheatre.org.

(*The trash was not a factor in the life of the real Nigel, as he lived on a relatively clean island with concrete gannets placed by researchers to attract the birds. Poor Nigel was the only taker, making him Internet-famous. The lone but not lonely bird passed away in February 2018, next to his concrete “mate.” Other live gannets have since taken his place on Mana Island, two miles north of New Zealand. [Source: Washington Post])  

Phoenix: Story of treasure in unexpected place

By John Lyle Belden

Once upon a time there was a woman, a trailer-park resident, who purchased an interesting abstract painting from a junk shop. Somebody told her it could actually be a long-lost work by a famous artist.

She reportedly replied, “Who the f#@& is Jackson Pollock?”

This true story is the touchstone for the comic drama “Bakersfield Mist,” by Stephen Sachs, on the main stage of the Phoenix Theatre through Dec. 19.

Jolene Mentink Moffatt is Maude Gutman (not the actual woman’s name, so there is room for dramatic license), hard drinking and filthy mouthed, but refreshingly honest and likable. Her cozy home appears to have been invaded by an antique mall thrift store, but she treasures every trashy trinket and questionable bit of wall art. Given the set decoration and California climate, it’s anyone’s guess whether the decorated Christmas tree indicates whether it’s the holidays or not.

She nervously awaits the arrival of fussy art expert Lionel Percy (Joshua Coomer), who can’t help but have a sour first impression of this situation, even before he gets to see the potential Pollock. 

But gaze upon it he does, and using only the expertise in his brain and the “blink” of his eyes, he confidently declares the painting a clever forgery.

Maude refuses to accept this. “What if you’re wrong?” she demands.

Thus the battle of wits is engaged, though for Maude it began before Lionel even entered her home. And the New York expert who literally wrote the book on this kind of art (more than once!) finds that while she hasn’t been to college, Maude has come to know a lot about Jackson Pollock.

Like all great theatre – or seemingly random color swirls on a white canvas – this play resonates beyond what we first encounter, as with the help of some purloined whiskey these two delve deeply into what art is, what evidence is necessary to confirm its value, and what it truly means. As art reflects life, what is genuine and what is false about the work that is us? Director and Phoenix regular Constance Macy gets a wonderful, gritty, and frequently hilarious performance from this duo, climaxing in a moment that – even if you know how this event actually resolved – has you on the edge of your seat. 

Not your typical December show, but, as I noted, there is a tree, and a bowling pin painted as a snowman, and plenty of spirit. It would be a shame to miss “Bakersfield Mist” at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets, call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Scars and healing in ‘Alabaster’

By John Lyle Belden

“I’m not polite company,” says June, the lone survivor of a tornado that ripped through her family’s farm a few years ago. She was left with countless scars, many of which are on her body. 

This has brought a renowned photographer to rural Alabama — famous for celebrity portraits, Alice has taken on a project to feature the scars on various brave women, showing their defiant beauty. But then, she has deep wounds of her own.

Also on the farm is Weezy, a common goat gifted with insight she shares verbally with June, and compassion for her mother Bib, an old nanny-goat without long to live.

This is “Alabaster,” by Audrey Cefaly, the long-awaited drama that re-opens the Russell main stage of the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy. Originally part of the 2019-20 season, the play is directed by Jolene Mentink Moffat, with brilliant performances by Maria Argentina Souza (June), Lauren Briggeman (Alice), Joanne Kehoe (Weezy), and Jan Lucas (Bib).

There are many themes at play here — loss, mourning, pain, recovery, holding on, letting go, and facing what comes next. There is also a constant stream of gentle humor, as one would expect when the narrator is a talking goat. Cefaly says in her program note that Weezy is “an instrument of the Divine.” I like to think of it as, “What if Jiminy Cricket were a goat?” Regardless, Kehoe takes on the role with a determined smile, giving the animal’s natural traits a sage quality.

It’s become routine in these reviews to dwell on how completely and comfortably Briggeman embodies her every role, and this is no exception. However, Souza matches her in a skillful portrayal of a character with spiky walls, a soft interior, and a mood that turns on a dime. June, who spends her days painting artworks on broken barn wood, is a soul both standing in the eye of her storm and still caught in its vortex; taking her outside these two states is Weezy’s wish, and becomes Alice’s mission — but is it a directive from her worried brain or her healing heart? 

Though Bib only speaks “goat,” Lucas can still communicate so much with a single look, as her character bides her time until her catalyst moment.

To stay a step ahead of pop-culture trivia experts in the audience, there are references to a certain popular book-based movie — which this play is kinda like, but kinda not — but only the goat truly goes meta (in a scene that even involves yoga). 

Perhaps we can all use a barnyard animal to talk to. Performances of “Alabaster” run through Oct. 31, see www.phoenixtheatre.org for info and tickets.

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.

Asch’s work rises anew in Phoenix production of Vogel’s ‘Indecent’

 

Indecent kiss
The infamous kiss — Abby Lee (left) and Courtney Spivak in ‘Indecent’ at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre.  (Provided photo by Zach Rosing)

By John Lyle Belden

 

The Phoenix Theatre has never shied from – in fact it embraces – controversial stage works. With its present production of the Tony-winning drama, “Indecent,” by Paula Vogel, it goes another layer by showing how a popular play shocked Broadway nearly a century ago.

Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch wrote just one play, but it became a sensation throughout the Yiddish-speaking world, and even found fame in translation throughout Europe. But when an Americanized “God of Vengeance” went on Broadway (even after playing in New York’s Yiddish theatres with no controversy), the cast and producer were quickly arrested and charged with indecency. Not only was this a Jewish play by a Jew (a troublesome thing in 1923), but it is set in a brothel and features two women falling in love, kissing passionately on stage.

According to program notes, when Vogel was approached about writing this play, she said she immediately pictured a ragged troupe of actors in an attic. That’s who we meet as the lights come up: Lemml the stage manager (played by Nick Jenkins) and his troupe portrayed by Mark Goetzinger, John Goodson, Abby Lee, Jolene Moffatt, Bill Simmons and Courtney Spivak.

Goodson spends most of the narrative as Asch, bringing his surprising new work to a Warsaw writer’s salon, taking it – with Lemml’s help – to the stage, and dealing with the fallout of the indecency trial. He embodies the role well, in all stages from an eager genius to a bitter man focused on the next phase of his writing.

Lee and Spivak are wonderful, portraying women who fall in love both within the play and offstage. Under the direction of Martha Jacobs, their sublime affections bloom beautifully. Phoenix regulars Goetzinger, Moffatt and Simmons are solid, as usual. As for Jenkins, his work is astounding, especially as we come to why we encounter the troupe as they were in the opening scene.

Indecent Lemml-Asch small
Nick Jenkins (left) as tailor-turned-stage manager Lemml and John Goodson as celebrated Yiddish writer Sholem Asch. (provided photo by Zach Rosing)

 

The multiple languages involved in telling the story are portrayed in part by easy-to-read projected captions. Often the dialogue is in English but the projected cue will say something like “In Yiddish” to maximize understanding and dramatic flow while keeping everything in context.

In the end, it’s like we’ve seen two great plays – we get a Cliff’s-notes understanding of “God of Vengeance (Got fun nekome)” as well as the full measure of Vogel’s work. But you only need to get one ticket. Performances are through July 8 at the Phoenix, now located at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Putting the ‘Cat’ in Catalyst

DSC00110
Corbett (Pat Mullen), right, converses with local cats (from left) Orangey (Dane Rogers), Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and Striper (Matt Anderson) in Bennett Ayres’ “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory at Wheeler Arts Community near Indy’s Fountain Square.

By John Lyle Belden*

We’ve likely all seen that internet meme along the lines of “I don’t want to adult today; I want to cat.” Local playwright Bennett Ayres took that idea to its bizarre conclusion in the new drama, “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory on the LongShot Theater stage at Wheeler Arts through May 28.

Corbett (played by Pat Mullen) has graduated college and is expected to take his next step in life. But is it truly his? He excelled in classes, became president of a fraternity, made friends with his bros and had sex with the right girls. Next comes internships and an internet marketing career to make his upper-class parents proud.

But after his roomates (Matt Walls and Donovan Whitney) depart, he starts to see the world through his own eyes – the fish tank in the neighbor’s (Dennis Forkel) window; the cute townie, Betsy (Patty Blanchfield), who works at the nearby convenience store; and especially all the neighborhood’s feral cats.

One night, a feline neighbor, Orangey (Dane Rogers), speaks to him. From then on Corbett draws himself further into their world, meeting gentle Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and their alpha, Striper (Matt Anderson). With the help of Wikipedia’s data on cat behavior, Corbett makes joining their ranks his mission.

The cats are represented by Patrick Weigland’s puppets – elegant slender alley-cat forms with expressive movement provided by their three actors, as well as lurking projected shadows. The portrayals nimbly display their cautious grace and suspicious attitudes expressed in different ways: Rogers’ Orangey blustery and paranoid, Stonerock’s Calico wary but trusting, and Anderson’s Striper cool and controlling.

Mullen excellently guides us through his journey from “imaginary” human to something he sees as more “real.” What appears to others as a man coming apart and abandoning responsibilities, he embraces as a necessary transformation. Blanchfield also shines as the woman caught up in his madness, seeing Corbett as her means of escape – but she can’t follow where he’s going.

The cast also features Sarah Holland Froehlke as Corbett’s mother, and the voices of Jim Tillett, Jolene Moffat and Ayres.

The play itself is an absorbing story, embracing its absurdity – reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”) – without any tongue-in-cheek. Is Corbett delusional? (The cats never speak to anyone else or when he’s around others.) It hardly matters when considering the play’s allegory and questions raised about identity, expectations and how we decide a life’s path. Taken together, director Zach Stonerock and his cast and crew have woven a darkly beautiful drama.

Wheeler Arts Community is located at 1035 Sanders St. in Indy’s Fountain Square neighborhood. For information and tickets, visit uncannycasey.wixsite.com/catalystrepertory or Catalyst Repertory’s Facebook page.

– – –

*Full disclosure: Wendy and I are good friends with Catalyst founder and artistic director Casey Ross, and I helped the production by designing the play program booklet – and making a few copies. But it really IS a good show, just ask Lisa G!

Finding secrets among the clutter

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy presents a new approach to the haunted house story with “Static” by Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

The setting is a cluttered home laden with a collection of collections, gathered over time and rendering the space forever a place belonging to the past. Time and space blend with past scenes of aging couple Walter and Millie (Rich Rand and Jolene Mentink Moffatt) and present scenes of young couple Emma and Owen (Chelsey Stauffer and Ben Schuetz) occurring in the same space and, occasionally, at the same time.

Walter was a compulsive collector, constantly bringing things home for Millie, who used to appreciate them, but she became haunted – frightened mute and locked in a pattern of searching by a loss no object can make up for. Walter also collected sounds, putting them on dozens of cassette tapes. He eventually also started collecting thoughts, including his worries for Millie and concerns that he might have recorded ghosts.

Emma compulsively bought this old house in her home town, planning to renovate and resell it. But she finds the old tape recorder and cassettes, and, listening to them, realizes this is the home from a tragic local legend. She is amused by Walter’s collection of noises around the house, until she hears his worried entries and realizes she must know the whole story – but one of the tapes is missing.

Rand tugs our heartstrings as a man whose creed is, “I can fix it,” but struggles with things he can’t seem to make right. Moffatt displays a different aspect of her immense talent. In contrast to recent brash and funny roles, she excellently delivers a sad, disturbed soul. She almost never speaks, yet communicates volumes. Stauffer believably portrays the transition from simple enjoyment of a project to unshakable obsession, while Schuetz wrestles with growing impatience with the woman he loves. Eliot Simmons completes the cast as a younger version of Emma, in a scene that hints at deeper connections.

The play is more suspense than horror, with supernatural elements – lights flickering and locks rattling, etc. – but the full nature of the haunting stays elusive. I don’t want to elaborate for fear of spoiling the plot’s surprises, but while it’s appropriate that some aspects of the mystery stay with you long after viewing the show, the resolution of this story felt incomplete. Still, Horan’s drama is an interesting examination of loss and to what degree we own our possessions or they own us.

“Static” plays through Nov. 20 at the Phoenix, 749 N. Park Ave. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.