Traumatic issues taken seriously in new drama

By John Lyle Belden

Over time, I have gotten to know persons who shared their struggles with Dissociative Identity Disorder, which pop culture gave the misleading label of “multiple personalities.” This mental health condition is complex and usually borne of deep personal trauma. 

Therefore, the Trigger Warnings for “Coping with Autumn,” the new drama written and directed by Megan Ann Jacobs for Theatre Unchained, presented by Arts for Lawrence, should be taken seriously.

Autumn (Kyrsten Lyster) is under observation after her arrest for killing her boyfriend. She decides that if you are going to watch, she will give you a show, telling you the story of how she arrived in this unfurnished cell.

During her narration, we meet the occupants of her mind: Dee (Maresa Eileen Kelly), the eternal child who won’t tell her what happened when alone with her father, appears shortly before her mother (Rachel A. Snyder) divorces and moves them from Wisconsin to Indiana. Joy (Ethany Reeder Michaud), the impulsive, takes over when potential new high school friends invite her to a party, then ensures Autumn has a “good time.” When regrets set in, Vera (Roci Contreras), the confrontational, appears to make sure those classmates never bother her again.

Like many misfits, Autumn feels more at home at a distant college. There, she is befriended by Kasey (Brittany Magee). They bond over poetry and spend a lot of time together, until Kasey invites Autumn to a “small” get-together. Naturally, it’s another wild crowd, and then the bag of drugs comes out.

Before her “friends” emerge, Autumn exits, and meets Steven (Thomas Sebald). He seems so nice, and perfect. He pampers her, gives her fancy meals and nice gifts. Then he starts making demands. Is this what love is like? Must be, she thinks, and does everything she can to please him – until she can’t. Kasey has been shut out, and Steven has charmed Mom. Who can help her? I’ll give you three guesses.

The second act features Autumn’s trial and aftermath. New allies include therapist Dr. Weber (Kelly Keller) and pro bono attorney Alex (Joe Wagner), who feels a personal connection to the case. But Sebald returns to the stage as a prosecuting attorney, the resemblance not lost on Autumn. 

Lyster, who has shown so much range in past roles, is amazing here. Magee, who joined the cast late into the production, is incredible in support. Snyder is superb, and by happy accident has a physical resemblance to her “daughter.” Their portrayals of well-meaning but damaged women never slip into cliche and evoke appropriate emotional responses from the audience and each other.

This ain’t “Inside Out.” The two adolescents and child that represent portions of
Autumn’s psyche are neither cartoonish nor comic relief. The dissociation is handled respectfully in smooth transitions with Lyster so that we easily see the four actors as aspects of the same woman. 

Sebald plays Steven so disarmingly kind (when the monster is hidden away), it’s easy to see how men like this character can charm and trap women who find no one believes them when relationships turn abusive. And when he’s a beast, “evil” is an understatement.

Cast and crew took this sensitive topic seriously. During a post-show talk-back, dramaturg Max Andrew McCreary said he shared his mental health research with them, including that according to one source, it is estimated that nearly half of adults have at one time had a sort of dissociative incident, from a moment feeling outside one’s body, all along the spectrum to rare cases of true DID (fictional Autumn’s condition is on the spectrum). All involved took consent into account throughout the entire process, from the first rehearsal. Sebald, who said he had helped workshop Steven/Prosecutor, said this was especially essential for him to feel comfortable in his role. This atmosphere of trust helped make the action in this drama more raw and natural, which some in the audience noted in their comments.

If you have experience with abuse and/or psychological trauma, be careful about seeing this. But for any who can manage, this is highly recommended. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 19-21 (post-show talkbacks on Thursday and Saturday) at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (off the north end of Indy’s Post Road). Get info and tickets at TheatreUnchained.org or ArtsForLawrence.org.

CCP: Explore ‘Curious Incident’ with unique mind

By Wendy Carson and John Lyle Belden

Christopher John Francis Boone is 15, a mathematical genius who finds all social and physical interactions terrifying. This is because Christopher is autistic. He lives alone with his father in Swindon, UK, having lost his mother two years earlier.

His love of animals brings him out one night to visit the neighbor’s poodle, Wellington, only to find it killed. Since he’s found kneeling with the dog, he is initially accused of its death. When the responding policeman tries to calm him down, his touch causes Christopher to lash out and be arrested. The misunderstanding is cleared up, but Christopher is left with a warning on his permanent record.

Discovering the murder of a dog is too irrelevant to be investigated, he decides, against his father’s strong wishes, to do it himself. This results in him having to talk to his neighbors, who to him are strangers, but he is determined to overcome his fears and solve this mystery, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” This 2015 Tony-winning play by Simon Stephens, based on the acclaimed novel by Mark Haddon, is on stage at the Cat Theater through March 6, presented by Carmel Community Players. 

While he does eventually find the killer’s identity, the path to that information has Christopher discover a huge family secret and embark on a journey that tests his resolve and the very limits of his abilities.

The staging, like the novel, is from Christopher’s point of view. Director Larry Adams and his crew (assistant Karissa Monson, lighting and video design by Eric Matters, set by David Muse, and sound design by Lori Raffel) excellently deliver the technical aspects of his world with all its abrupt stimuli, cacophonous sounds, and tangled language. 

Being on stage the whole time, the role of Christopher is demanding to start with – add to this a British accent, various physical tics and almost constant movement and it turns into a Herculean challenge. In his first leading role, Noah Ebeyer is spectacular in embodying the part. He never seems to act; we only see the troubled genius trying to make sense of his world, get the answers he feels he deserves, and get to school in time to take his Maths A-Levels exams. Adams agrees with the talk of the performance being award-worthy, marveling at how Ebeyer took naturally to the role. And while the boy he plays may be put off by us strangers, he makes us feel something special for him.

Christopher’s teacher Siobahn (Lori Colcord) provides support and reads to us much of his inner dialogue from a notebook he had kept. Earl Campbell is sharp as his father Ed, struggling to do what’s best for Christopher and learning the hard way the consequences of keeping facts from one whose mind relies on them for his whole life’s structure. Nikki Lynch plays Christopher’s loving but overstressed mother Judy.

The rest of the cast – Tanya Haas, Kelly Keller, Cathie Morgan, Gus Pearcy, Ryan Shelton, Barb Weaver – morphs from one character to another (people as well as inanimate objects) while also voicing Christopher’s self-doubts and thoughts. No actual dogs were killed in the making of this show – including Bob Adams in a touching canine cameo.

Also, you will cheer for a mathematical solution! (Stay through the curtain call.)

The Cat is at 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Find information and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.

Hilarious new creation at Mud Creek

By John Lyle Belden

In the classic comedy style of something simple going wildly out of control, “In the Beginning…” — a new play at Mud Creek Players — God creates the Heavens and the Earth, and immediately regrets it.

At first, the Almighty (Nicole Crabtree) tries to put the Big Bang back into its bottle, or at least mop up it all up with black holes, but alas, once matter and energy exist, they can’t be destroyed. She may as well see what’s happening on the little blue thing, where a bunch of living things are crawling, swimming, flying and running around everywhere. There, she tries to customize a creature that stands upright, with less fur and a big brain — another mistake.

In this silly possibility of how everything came to be, we meet God’s top angels — Michael (Kate Carpenter), Gabriel (Eric Dixon), Lucifer (Connor Phelan), as well as the Voice of God (Craig Kemp) — and Biblical characters including Adam (Kelly Keller), Eve (Tanya Keller), Noah (Fred Margison) and Moses (Alaina Moore). 

Unless you are really devoted to a literal interpretation of Scripture, you should find all this a lot of hilarious fun. If we are made in the Lord’s image, wouldn’t it make sense that — just like when we invent and accomplish things — our Heavenly Parent is also just making it up as they go along?

Crabtree plays that unprepared Mother/Father with the right touch of exasperation and growing love for the critters she brought into being, however unintended. Dixon and Carpenter keep things lively with his urge to “smite” and her love of writing up new Commandments. Phelan’s Lucifer, naturally, is the smartest angel in the room, suave and brash, but eventually resigned to having to deal with all the extra souls that turned sour. Kemp reassures us that, as we all suspected, the commanding voice of the Almighty has a British accent. The humans all have their humanish quirks, especially Eve, who apparently overdoses on the Tree of Knowledge. And young actors Hadley Skinner and Ben Odom get a charmingly amusing moment in featured roles.

The Mud Creek Barn goes high-tech with this premiere production, with visual effects by Stephen DiCarlo that perfectly help the story along. Jay Ganz directs.Crew member Collin Moore wrote the script, and it shows a fair amount of polish for a new play.

Truly, something wonderful has been created. Performances are Friday through Sunday (Feb. 7-9) and Feb. 14-15 at 9740 E. 86th St. (Castleton/Geist area), Indianapolis. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.org.

 

CCP: Artist ‘dying’ to get popular in Twain farce

By John Lyle Belden

Mark Twain’s almost-forgotten farce, “Is He Dead?” has come alive in Fishers, thanks to Carmel Community Players.

Twain, the celebrated American author and humorist, wrote the play while traveling Europe and had planned on staging it in 1898, but those performances never happened. The script was rediscovered in 2002 and, adapted by noted playwright David Ives, finally reached Broadway in 2007.

Now it’s here.

A fictional version of actual master painter Jean-Francois Millet (played by Jaime Johnson) struggles to get noticed or even sell a single painting from his shabby home in Barbizon, France. His international circle of disciples, Chicago (Matt Hartzburg), Dutchy (Adam Powell) and O’Shaughnessy (Kelly Keller) recognize his genius, as do landladies Bathide (Lucinda Ryan) and Caron (Susan Hill), who don’t mind getting art for rent payments. But moneylender Bastien Andre (Larry Adams) wants real Francs in payment for debts owed, and threatens to foreclose not only on Millet’s studio, but also Monsieur Leroux (Keven Shadle), whose daughter he desires. However, Marie (Morgan Morton) is repulsed by Andre and is in love with Millet. Meanwhile, her sister Cecile (Monya Wolf) has her eye on Chicago.

Desperate for a way to quickly raise thousands of Francs, our artists get an idea after a clueless English art buyer (Dave Bolander in one of a number of hilarious roles) states that genius is only rewarded after the artist has died. Chicago then talks Millet into “contracting an illness” so horrible as to guarantee publicity of his impending “death.” Meanwhile, Millet appears in a dress as his twin sister, the Widow Tillou, to inherit the inevitable riches.

This being a comedy, of course, things don’t go entirely as planned.

Twain’s wry humor is woven throughout this satirical farce, and little moments of 19th-century style silliness work in the overall context. Johnson plays Millet as a down-on-his-luck everyman who just wants what’s due him, playing it straight against the comic antics of his students – and his scenes in drag are “Some Like it Hot” hilarious. Chicago, our lone American character, appears to be Twain’s surrogate in the story, a fast-talking charming schemer in the mold of Tom Sawyer, and Hartzburg turns on the charm in the role. Powell is like a caricature of a caricature, but is so likable it works. Wolf gets in some great moments with the old girl-disguised-as-man gag. And Johnson is delectably “boo-hiss!” worthy as our top-hatted melodrama villain, complete with twirled mustache.

Direction is by Mark Tumey, who said he came to love the play while portraying Andre in a production in Arizona.

The show’s social commentary on art and fame resonates a bit today, but mostly this is just a fun evening with the work of one of America’s greatest writers. As CCP is still seeking a full-time home, performances for this play are at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers, through June 24. Call 317-815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.org.

It’s like this thing that never happened, totally happened, at Mud Creek

By John Lyle Belden

We know two things for certain: First, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso were alive and in Europe during the first years of the 20th century, and second, comic legend Steve Martin has an exceptional wit and entertaining flair for the absurd.

These things considered, it was inevitable – in a Martinesque world much like our own – that Einstein would meet “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” in the play by Mr. Martin now on stage at Mud Creek Players through May 6.

When you arrive at the old barn – which hasn’t seen livestock in ages, but they call it that anyway – at 9740 E. 86th St., Indy, you will receive a program, and looking within, you will notice two things: First, that the director, Kelly Keller, is quite handsome. Perhaps it is Photoshop, perhaps moisturizer. Second, you will see the characters listed in order of appearance. This is important, as characters must appear in order for a play to happen. They should also arrive in order, but note that this is Paris and people like Einstein are forever altering history.

You will also notice the barman, barmaid, a local drunk who really should get his prostate checked and others engaged in interesting clever conversations on art and genius. Perhaps this is a European thing. And Picasso does show up, redeeming the apparent premise of the play, to learn the most important aspect of his career – that he should sign his drawings.

We also meet the greatest inventive mind of the 20th century, Charles Davernow Schmendiman. This alone should have you calling the box office.

By this point in the review you should notice two things: First, that I do like doing that “two things” thing, and second, that I’m not very good at being consistent.

I must warn you that when this comic drama of a dramatic comedy concludes, you will discover that the ladies and gentlemen are not who they have presented themselves to be. Einstein turns out to be Justin Lyon, a local actor, though he is quite convincing, and even shows us “the hair.” Likewise, Picasso was nicely impersonated by Brad Root, who, it turns out, does not have a single piece hanging in the Louvre. Zach Haloski should be commended for his striking resemblance to Schmendiman. We are also cleverly deceived by Eric Matter, Collin Moore, Monya Wolf, Savannah Jay, Robert C. Boston Jr., Susan Hill and Lexi Odle. It would be best not to mention that Brock Francis appears in this production, as it is a surprise. Fortunately, despite this allegedly being a barn, there were no pitchforks or torches, so the audience was very forgiving of the illusion portrayed on the stage – on the contrary, they quite enjoyed it.

For a pleasant evening of highly meaningful nonsense, call 317-290-5343 or visit www.mudcreekplayers.org.