Shakespeare historical drama provides free fun at Garfield Park

By John Lyle Belden

The Garfield Shakespeare Company is a wonderful community asset in the near-southside of Indianapolis. Performing in Garfield Park, the company provides an opportunity for actors and crew of all levels of experience to bring on the Bard — and for everyone else to watch it all for free.

Through this weekend at the Garfield Park Arts Center, see them perform “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.” These plays, easily fitting into about an hour each with intermission between, lead up to the popular “Henry V,” and detail some of the events of England’s War of the Roses, struggles between dynasties for the British throne.

While the young “Hal,” Prince of Wales (Dillon Richter), makes merry with best bud Edward Poins (Benjamin Mathis), boisterous braggart Sir John Falstaff (Stephen E. Foxworthy) and company, his father, Henry IV (John Mortell) seeks to squash unrest in his kingdom, even while his health is failing.

The Percy family, especially young “Hotspur” (J.D. Bonitz) don’t like how their former ally is now their ruler and raise up a rebellion. After some wild (and very entertaining) antics by the Falstaff gang, the younger Henry is summoned by his father to take seriously his station and join him in battle. This Hal does, leading to a fateful meeting with Hotspur.

Part 2 deals with the aftermath of the Percys’ rebellion, leading to a “peace” meeting between its leaders and the king’s younger son, Prince John of Lancaster (Eirene Brubaker). The kingdom secure, the crown can pass to young Henry. But is he truly “king” material?

Director Chris Burton has created an excellent environment to experience this rich chapter of history. The audience sits at tables of the “Boar’s Head Tavern,” complete with complimentary platters of fruit and cheese and non-alcoholic beverages. (Friday and Saturday performances also feature sales of Garfield Brewery products.) When a scene happens to take place in the Boar’s Head of the play,  a character might sit by you for a moment, or an argument break out by your table. Simple sets give us Falstaff’s table; Royal chambers; a war camp; or even two environs at once, where similar conversations take place. History comes alive with moments of stark emotion and rowdy humor.

Key roles feature brilliant acting, especially Morrell’s dying king and Foxworthy’s absolutely perfect Falstaff. Burton even has a twist on the Shakespearean habit of casting boys for female parts, by having teen girl Brubaker play the boy Prince John (who was in his early teens when these events took place). Also solid performances from Brant Hughes, Mike Harold, June Greyson, Mallory Ward, Amber Bradley, Ashley Chase Elliott, Elizabeth Fasbinder, Jim Mellowitz, Joshua Minnich, Andrew K. Olin, and Jay Brubaker as one tough Scotsman.

This production is a follow-up to last year’s “Richard II.” Does this mean we can see “Henry V” next spring? Richter told me he is up for it, so we can hope.

Performances of “Henry IV” are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 28-30. Their next production will be an outdoor staging of “As You Like It” in August. Find information at Facebook.com/garfieldshakespearecompany.

Classroom drama gets excellent portrayal by student actors

By John Lyle Belden

ATTENTION: Your assignment is to see and applaud some very talented youth.

CYT director Laura Baltz told us that her all-kid cast of “Up the Down Staircase,” playing this weekend at Theater at the Fort, were unsure about how us grownups would judge their efforts, especially as it’s a first-time foray into drama rather than comic musicals. But, simply put, John & Wendy were blown away.

The play – based on the 1960s novel – takes place in an inner-city New York high school where a young first-time teacher is confronted by a run-down building, bureaucratically stifled staff and apathetic students. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film or a stage version (or “To Sir With Love” or frankly any inspiring-teacher film), you know the story. But it’s how the teacher gets through the red tape and reaches the kids that’s important, and it doesn’t seem so cliché when the students are actually played by school-age kids (middle-schoolers in high school are easier to accept than Hollywood’s 20-something screen “teens”).

The adult roles are played by elder members of the CYT troupe, and come off as believably mature. I thought I could guess which actors are 18, but Baltz informed me that actually, none of them are.

Abagail Johnson is appropriately inspiring as new teacher Sylvia Barrett. She seems comfortable in her own skin with an optimistic confidence that shines through her character, even when overwhelmed, making you believe in and root for the “Teach” at the center of the story. Sabrina Duprey convincingly plays at least a decade older than her 16 years as Beatrice, Sylvia’s fellow teacher and mentor.

Sam Surrette couples his excellent performance with a cocky swagger as teacher and frustrated author Paul Barringer, who feels he’s too good for the job he’s stuck in until his efforts to stay emotionally distant from his students backfire almost tragically.

Maria Saam ably plays Ellen, a friend who provides outside perspective for Sylvia (and the audience) through their correspondence.

And Joshua Minnich manages the difficult job of injecting humanity into administrative assistant J.J. McHabe, the personification of much of what Sylvia is up against.

The rest of the cast do very well as faculty and students – keeping events flowing and lines delivered sharply (even when the scene calls for them to talk over one another). Jackson Bell and Makayla Cripe handle the dramatic load of portraying students who are troubled, each in a distinctly different way.

As the original story was told in letters, memos and written notes, the play cleverly provides them as loose conversations or popping in through hidden doors in the wall (like the old TV show “Laugh-In”). Ellen’s home, miles away, enters and exits the stage edge by clever lighting. All elements are executed smoothly.

I should note that CYT stands for Christian Youth Theater. It is easy to assume that such a group might feel compelled to insert Bible verses or otherwise “Jesus-up” the show, but there’s no preaching here. The play carries a theme of Christian compassion that speaks for itself.

And the teachers’ plight might look a little too familiar, even 50 years after the story was written.

As for the concerns mentioned earlier, these young thespians needn’t worry. They are doing solid work in an American classic. My advice to them is to keep working on the stage as long as you feel inspired to, and take the play’s notion of reach-exceeding-grasp to heart. It might not always work (still, you did your best, right?) but this time it definitely did.

Just one weekend of performances (weather permitting) Friday through Sunday, Jan. 13-15 at 8920 Otis Ave. on the former Fort Benjamin Harrison grounds, just off the north end of Post Road. Info at www.cytindy.org.