Ludwig ‘Holmes’ comedy a holiday treat at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

One of the interesting things about Ken Ludwig’s comedy mystery, “The Game’s Afoot, or, Holmes for the Holidays,” on stage at Buck Creek Players, is that the lead role is a fictionalized version of actual early-20th century actor William Gillette, who not only helped set the traditional look for Sherlock Holmes on stage and screen, but also starred in a Holmes play that he wrote with the blessing of Sherlock creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While, as portrayed here, Gillette did make fame and fortune as the legendary detective, tinkered with inventions to aid his stagecraft, and had a castle built for him on his Connecticut estate, Ludwig also plays up the man’s Holmes obsession to the point that he seeks to solve the mystery of an attempt on his life.

Hilarity, and apparently a murdered body or two, ensues.

Joshua C. Ramsey excels at rock-chinned steadfast leading man, even when played for laughs, and delivers Gillette’s stoic sense of purpose so well that flummoxed moments come off all the funnier. His family and friends (a/k/a, the suspects) are played by Cathie Morgan as Gillette’s mother, Martha; Tony Brazelton as Felix, his past best friend and present on-stage Moriarty; Tiffany Wilson as Marian, Felix’s wife; Hannah Partridge as recently widowed ingenue Aggie; and Josh Rooks as ambitious young actor Simon. They are joined at what they thought was an end-of-the run holiday party by ruthless newspaper columnist Daria Chase (Sarah Powell), and the evening’s activities will bring around an actual detective, Inspector Goring (Renee Lopez Whiten). In addition, Cyrena Knight, Breanna Helms, and Julie Gilpin play the house staff, and can step in as understudies.

Under the direction of Brian Noffke, no stranger to wild comedy, the cast all hit the farcical beats with professional precision. The exquisite stage set, designed by Ed Trout, includes an infamous rotating bookshelf used to full comic effect.

Even though I saw a production of this years back, I had forgotten “who done it” (yes, there is a mystery to solve amidst this madness) but even if you aren’t surprised at the end, you’ll assuredly be delighted by this unconventional “holiday” play.

“The Game’s Afoot” for two more weekends, through Dec. 18 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at buckcreekplayers.com.

‘Curious’ and charming comedy in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

If you are around stages long enough, eventually a community theatre will mount “The Curious Savage.” This 1950 gem by popular screenwriter and playwright John Patrick was maybe a little too sentimental for more than a premiere run on Broadway over 70 years ago, but contains a rich variety of themes and subtleties (starting with its title). It is also a gift for a neighborhood playhouse with its single stage set and nearly a dozen fun and interesting characters to perform. Thus, it arrives with Main Street Productions in Westfield.

On a typical day in post-WWII America, we meet people who are intelligent, friendly and a bit eccentric. At The Cloisters, a mental institution, this is the wing of those needing the least supervision. Something is a little off about each of the patients – something that if resolved could lead to their exit. But they take comfort in their present home, and eagerly await a new arrival. Miss Willie (Rachel Pope), the nurse, sends them to their rooms, as head psychiatrist Dr. Emmett (Tom Riddle) brings in Mrs. Ethel P. Savage (Tanya Haas), looking like a normal older woman of the era, carrying a huge teddy bear. She has been committed by her step-children – U.S. Sen. Titus Savage (Steven Marsh), socialite Lily Belle Savage (Jan Boercherding), and Judge Samuel Savage (Ian A. Montgomery) – who claim she has been acting too irrationally since her husband (their father) died. Ethel insisted on becoming (gasp!) an actress, and even worse, wants to take the millions of dollars she inherited and start a foundation to give it away.

After the relatives depart, the inmates (who had been eavesdropping) introduce themselves. Fairy May (Phoebe Aldridge) is gregarious and thoughtful, and constantly embellishing “facts” about her life. Hannibal (Thom Johnson) is a statistician, replaced by a calculating machine, who convinced himself he can play violin. Florence (Jennifer Poynter) dotes on her five-year-old son, the doll she carries in place of the child she lost in infancy. Veteran Jeffrey (Josh Rooks) carries his survivor’s guilt as an invisible (except to him) facial scar, and vaguely remembers he played the piano before the War. Mrs. Paddy (Lisa Warner) an aspiring seascape painter, was once told by her husband to “Shut up!” and she did, never speaking a word except, when emotional, she lists the things she hates – including electricity, which she gave up for Lent.

This wonderful, gentle comedy takes no cheap shots at the disordered. Enterprising methods of exercise, for instance, look silly but contain their own rational intent. While entertaining, we also see how their eccentricities become limiting, demonstrating their need for treatment. Where the “crazy” comes in is when the trio of Savages arrive to attempt to force Ethel to reveal what she has done with the family fortune. As Lily Belle betrays her classlessness, Samuel his whimpering indecision, and Titus his blowhard bluster (Marsh looks like his head will literally explode), the residents appear downright sane.

Haas keeps Ethel endearing, yet sly, charming, and conniving like a “Mame” or “Dolly” character in captivity. Her housemates also work their way into our hearts as they go to great lengths to maintain perpetual happiness. Pope and Riddle show the genuine concern their characters have for everyone’s wellbeing.

Director Nancy Lafferty has done an outstanding job with this American classic. Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 6-9, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. For info and tickets, visit westfieldplayhouse.org.

BCP drama examines historical mystery

By John Lyle Belden

On Aug. 4, 1892, somebody murdered Abby and Andrew Borden in Fall River, Mass. This is historical fact, as well as the arrest and trial of Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, for the killings. The last 130 years have seen the growth of legends, myths, and a nursery rhyme around the incident, the kind of true-crime story familiar to those who remember the sensationalized double-murder trial of a former football star in the 1990s.

Buck Creek Players takes a whack at the lore with “Lizzie Borden of Fall River” by Tim Kelly, directed by Ben Jones.

The first act sets up the infamous events. Lizzie (Renee Whiten Lopez) is smart and headstrong, as well as kind to those she loves, even her strict and stingy father, Andrew (Tim Latimer). She shows no love or affection to stepmother Abby (Sarah Latimer), whom she is sure married her father for his wealth and controls his decisions. Lizzie and sister Emma (Rachel Bush) are very close, sharing to a degree an impatience with their father and distrust of the stepmother. Their live-in maid Bridget (Amelia Tryon) is adored by the girls, but has problems with the parents, who blame her and not the days-old mutton for recent stomach ailments.

Other characters who factor into the coming events include handyman Mr. Sousa (Josh Rooks) from whom Andrew withholds part of his pay because “you might spend it foolishly;” Aunt Vinnie Morris (Cyrena Knight), who wishes to claim a New Hampshire property promised by her sister (the girls’ mother) as her dying wish, but which Andrew refuses as there is no binding contract; neighbor Mrs. Churchill (Lea Ellingwood), who is outraged that Lizzie took the church’s Sunday School superintendent position she felt entitled to; church minister Rev. Jubb (Matt Trgovac), who is very fond of Lizzie; and the girls’ friend Alice (Cass Knowling).

Fortunately, the dire deed is done with sound-effects, the only blood being on Lizzie’s hands after she discovers her father’s body.

The second act, appropriate for an audience raised on Law & Order reruns, focuses on the arrest and trial. Patrolman Harrington (Jason Roll) at first has to protect against the mob and onlookers around the Borden home, but then has to slap the cuffs on Lizzie when the Marshall (Dustin Miller) comes to arrest her. On her side are Boston attorney Ms. Jennings (Melissa Sandullo) and New York Sun reporter Amy Robsart (Nora Burkhart). At one point Sousa’s wife Carlotta (Breanna Helms) appears, concerned that her husband is a potential suspect.

Though it does present its own theory of what happened, don’t expect this drama to be the conclusive last word. Lizzie Borden’s guilt or innocence is still a matter of debate, and Kelly took some license with characters and events.

Presented as an entertaining history-based whodunit, the play works with a bit of melodrama and almost comic foreshadowing. In what I suspect is a mixture of the script, Jones’ guidance, and Sarah Latimer’s stony delivery, Abby is so thoroughly despicable, we all want to take a turn with the hatchet. Tim Latimer’s performance shows Andrew to be more a product of his times and frugal upbringing, but not entirely without heart. Tryon’s Sullivan is sweet and likable, even when the discovery of poison adds her to the suspect list. Rooks manages to perfectly balance Sousa’s principled stance and his hot-headedness. Knight gives Aunt Vinnie charming sweetness that gives way to injured desperation. Ellingwood delivers a mix of nosy and nasty that helps make Churchill an unreliable witness. Bush masterfully works Emma’s interesting arc that draws her slowly from the periphery to the center of the plot.

Lopez gives us a fully realized, relatable character in Lizzie, with charisma somewhere between Susan B. Anthony and Mary Poppins, but always with that dark edge, a shadow that still follows over a century later.

So, who did it? Who saw what and when? What of the poison, or the destroyed dress? You have one more weekend to find out, Friday through Sunday, Aug. 12-14 at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at buckcreekplayers.com.

Death stalks doctors in ‘Ambush’

By John Lyle Belden

Both a parent’s and a physician’s worst nightmare: A young person is dying, and it seems no one can stop it. This is at the heart of the medical mystery thriller “The Ambush,” on stage at The Cat in Carmel. The play is by Dr. L. Jan Eira, a local cardiologist whose work as a playwright has been seen from IndyFringe to Off-Off-Broadway, and directed by Aaron Henze.

It seemed odd, but not too suspicious at first. The Zionsville (Ind.) High School soccer team is invited to a pre-season exhibition at Danville, Ill. Zionsville Police Detective Ben Sinclair (T.J. O’Neil) and his wife, research scientist Dr. Amy Sinclair (Stephanie Riley), accompany their son, a member of the team. At the game, the boy suddenly collapses, and at the hospital his parents learn the awful truth – it was deliberate poisoning with a neurotoxin, and if an antidote isn’t found or created, he will soon die.

The couple discover other coincidences: There is a research facility at the hospital, much like the one where Amy works, headed by Dr. Miranda Phillips (Tanya Rave), daughter of Amy’s past colleague and friend, Dr. Terri Phillips (Wendy Brown), who recently retired. Miranda is assisted by wheelchair-bound Dr. Jack Stevenson (Adam K Allen). In addition, Danville Police Lieutenant Lela Rose (Jessica Hawkins) and Detective Rubin (Josh Rooks) inform them there have been a series of brutal murders, all involving the use of neurotoxin. As ICU Dr. Jenner (Miranda Lila Jean Nickerson) informs them that the boy’s condition is worsening fast, all understand they are in a race against time to find both a cure and a killer!

Eira combines his medical knowledge with love of a mystery to create a plot similar to the many action-mystery dramas we see on television. My impression was that this was like a blend of “House M.D.” and CBS’s “FBI” series, with a hefty dose of melodrama as the tension ramps up.

O’Neill gives us a furious combination of angry father and impatient cop that would be right at home in a “Lethal Weapon” film, but his maverick ways get results – and a lot of (to be honest, appropriate) pushback from Hawkins’ Lt. Rose, who plays it cool and professional throughout. Riley has a lot to work with in her role, feeling desperate at possibly losing her son and guilty at the possibility this is someone’s way of getting back at her for a perceived past slight. When the killer is revealed, we get some scenes of “boo-hiss”-worthy evil before our heroes prevail.

There is also a theme of faith and its power to salve or solve, as well as personal sacrifice.

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, July 8-10, at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, Carmel. Get info and tickets at themdwriter.com.

Vital to war effort, ‘Fly Babies’ remembered on BCP stage

By John Lyle Belden

For any fan of history, especially if your knowledge of the “aviatrix” begins and ends with Amelia Earhardt, you need to see “Fly Babies,” playing through Sunday at Buck Creek Players.

Based on the actual Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II, this drama by Rusty Harding, directed by Melissa DeVito, features a portrayal of real-world aviation legend Jackie Cochran, who – among numerous accomplishments – started this civilian corps of women pilots that helped deliver military aircraft around the United States, and train (male) pilots and crew members for deployment overseas. The ever-masculine Army Air Corps kept the program under wraps at the time, with the women only getting their due in recent decades.

At Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, Cochran (Sue Kuehnhold) takes under her wing a flock representing the various types of women aviators who trained for WASP wings: Dotty Moore (Sabrina Duprey), who flew with her father as a crop-duster; Pauline Yates (Cass Knowling), a daredevil barnstormer who keeps on flying despite her husband’s death in a crash; Peggy Taylor (Audrey Duprey), a spoiled socialite whose Daddy had her take flying lessons, then apply for this duty, to buff up the family brand; and Hazel Ying (Maria R. Manalang), representing the few minorities allowed into the program, a veteran of action against the Japanese in her parents’ homeland, China.

Mazy Buford (Alicia Sims) represents one of the less honorable aspects of the story: not even allowed in the all-male Tuskegee Airmen, this experienced African American pilot settled for working as a seamstress and cleaning lady to be as close to the aircraft as she could get.

Adding a little levity and charm is Sgt. Louis Lewis (Josh Rooks), the soldier who can get you anything, and despite his non-stop faulty flirting, is a good and likable guy.

Col. Thomas Evans (Tom Smith) is the officer in charge. He’s not thrilled with the program, but sees its necessity in freeing up men to fly in the War. Less understanding is WASP instructor Cpt. John Whitaker (Logan Browning), a man bitter with prejudice – misogynist and racist – and scarred in mind and body from being shot down in the Pacific. The lone survivor of his squadron, Whitaker took out enough of the enemy to earn a Silver Star, but is too damaged to return to action. He takes no pleasure in training “broads” to fly warbirds, but orders are orders, and he grudgingly comes to admit they are pretty good. The women respect his abilities but chafe at his constant meanness; they flip one of his insults – Fly Babies – into a badge of honor.

In the course of their training, Dotty seeks to rectify the injustice done to Mazy, infuriating Cochran, who understands, but also knows pushing the issue could jeopardize the whole program. Meanwhile, some gremlin has been defacing and damaging the WASP training planes. Whitaker insists it’s just harmless “hijinks” by some of the men on the base, but how far will such pranks go?

Dotty in later years is played by Sarah Latimer, in scenes that bookend the story. Stage manager Lauren E. Ruddick steps in as her nurse.

Performances are strong all around. An aviator offstage, Sabrina Duprey adds that confidence to her already impressive talent. Real-world sister Audrey is no slouch either, playing the girl who must become an independent woman who serves not just her family, but her country. Knowling shows no rust in taking her first stage role since high school, giving us one of the more well-rounded characters in the cast. Experienced performer Manalang charms in her first major drama role. Sims brings an important character to life, ranging from expressing the joy of flight to the supreme irritation at how the country she wants to defend treats her. 

Smith plays an apt representative of Army brass, working from tolerating to appreciating to defending the unit he commands. Browning manages to lend some degree of humanity to a very damaged man. Rooks doesn’t take his Radar-esque role too far, projecting a clear sense of duty under the goofy exterior, as well as honest affection. Kuehnhold plays Cochran as both mission-focused and a mama-bear, rock steady always.

In this high-stakes high-pressure environment, the story does take tragic turns. Social attitudes of the era cannot be avoided, either. Appropriate in context, but disturbing to modern ears, there are some racial-ethnic slurs against both Blacks and Asians. DeVito says these parts of the dialogue were discussed with the cast, who agreed it would be more impactful to be true to the period.

Though overall an imagined story, “Fly Babies” is true to the history and shines a light on a nearly forgotten part of America’s effort in winning WWII. Opening-night turnout was surprisingly low. Hopefully more will come out to see this inspiring play, 8 p.m. Friday or Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (April 8-10) at BCP, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at BuckCreekPlayers.com.

‘Good’ show at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

Hard times can make hard people, but also “Good People,” in the hit 2011 Broadway play by David Lindsay-Abaire, now on stage at Buck Creek Players.

Margie (Molly Bellner) is a lifelong resident of Southie, a Boston working-class neighborhood — the kind of hardscrabble place one grows up planning to escape. For years, she struggled since dropping out of high school to take care of her baby, now a mentally disabled adult. Care for the unseen Joyce has made her late for work one too many times, and she is searching for a job again. Her friend Jean (Francie Mitchaner) and landlady Dotti (Susan Hill) suggest Margie look up her past boyfriend Mike (Jeremy Tuterow), a successful doctor, to see if he can help. Her visit to his office quickly becomes awkward, yet results in her getting an invitation to his birthday party at his nice home.

Later at the Bingo Hall (with Brian Noffke as the voice of the Priest calling the numbers), Margie meets Jean, Dotti, and her former Dollar Store supervisor, Stevie (Josh Rooks). She tells them about the party, and her hopes of hitting up someone there for a job. Jean notes that if she tells Mike that Joyce wasn’t born prematurely, making him the father, Margie could leverage that to get his help. But then Mike calls, saying the party has been cancelled – Margie doesn’t believe him, and goes anyway.

This play is best described as a rather dark comedy, wringing a good amount of humor from sad and uncomfortable situations. The struggles aren’t just with employment, as the Act II “party” with Mike and his wife Kate (Alicia Sims), a beautiful African-American woman, becomes reminiscent of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

Bellner gives a brilliant performance, as a person for whom (“pardon my French,” she’d say) “busting your balls” is her love language. Her environment has brought her up so that being passive-aggressive, pushy and manipulative became necessary for survival. But it still comes across that Margie means well, that deep down she strives to be good, or at least “Good People” by Southie standards.

Mitchaner and Hill show in their characters that Margie isn’t unique, Jean and Dotti have only grown older and more cynical. But at least Dotti has her side-hustle, selling handmade (with Joyce’s help) wooden rabbits. Rooks sweetly plays the boy who never got out of Southie, but is making the best of it. Tuterow gives us the boy who did, but resents its shadow, while nursing a darkness that innocent Kate already suspects.

It’s interesting that to these folks, a Bingo jackpot is their “lottery dream.” Note the audience gets a chance to play, too, as Father Noffke calls a game during Intermission, complete with a prize.

With direction and excellent set design by Jim LaMonte, “Good People” has one more weekend, through Sunday, Feb. 13, at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74), Indianapolis. For info and tickets, visit buckcreekplayers.com.