Wild ‘Rumors’ in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

There’s a reason why Neil Simon’s classic farce, “Rumors,” is a community theatre staple. It’s an intricate yet easy to follow comedy that allows local actors used to one others’ rhythm to pull out all the stops and set an appreciative audience practically rolling in the aisles with laughter.

Main Street Productions in Westfield stepped up to the challenge, and under the direction of Jen Otterman, succeeded wildly. Otterman notes that the theme undergirding the wacky plot is friendship – especially the kind that freaks out at the thought of a BFF getting a soiled reputation. We get this sense immediately when dear friends Ken and Chris Gorman (Robert Webster Jr. and Laura Givens) arrive at the home of their best friend Charlie (who happens to be Deputy Mayor of New York) for his anniversary party to find him upstairs, injured, and his wife Myra missing. And did they hear a gunshot?

Before getting any answers, more friends arrive: Accountant Lenny Ganz and his wife Claire (Josh Elicker and Monya Wolf); then Ernie the analyst and Cookie the TV cooking-show host (Jason Vernier and Kelsey VanVoorst); and finally, Glenn and Cassie Cooper (Jan Hauer and Sara Castillo Dandurand), he’s running for State Senate and she’s running him ragged with her crystal obsession and constant suspicions of his infidelity.

Before it’s all done, there will be numerous well-meaning falsehoods, a literally deafening second gunshot, DIY meal and cocktails, and further damage to Lenny’s BMW. So, when Officers Welch and Pudney (Nathaniel Taff and Nicole Amsler) come around asking questions, what do these paranoid partygoers say?

Again, this is all very, very funny. Comic goddess VanVoorst is in her element, as well as Webster, a versatile talent who has become a familiar face on the Westfield stage. The rest of the cast stay right on the pace, delivering one zinger or sight-gag after another. Givens and Wolf have Lucy-and-Ethyl chemistry and timing. Elicker puts the “suffer” in longsuffering but keeps it all light. Vernier is a hoot as the expert on human behavior who barely has a clue. Hauer displays the desperation to come out of this with his dignity and campaign intact. Dandurand brings flaky fun without going over the top. Even Taff gets to shine, as the cop with little tolerance for foolishness finding himself in Fool Central.

Rumor has it you will have a great time at performances Thursday through Sunday, June 9-12, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get info and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

Holiday favorite ‘Elf’ returns to Civic

By John Lyle Belden

Just two years ago (what seems a lifetime now), the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre had one of their biggest-ever hits with the musical “Elf,” based on the 2003 Wil Farrell film that is already a beloved Christmas classic.

And as live theatre has returned around central Indiana, so, too, has Buddy and his friends. And – a holiday miracle? – this production is just as wonderful as it was before.

This presents the reviewer with a problem. How do I say practically the same thing I wrote in 2019?

Like this — To save you the click and page-load of a link to the previous review, the following is the same text that still applies, with updated cast and info as needed:

The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, with songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, allows Buddy the Elf to escape the shadow of Ferrell’s unique talent to make him his own wonderful character — portrayed happily here by Matt Bays. 

As in the original story, Buddy is a human who, as a baby, crawled into Santa’s sack, unseen until the end of the journey. Finding that the boy’s single mother had died, Santa Claus (Parrish Williams) lets him be raised by the elves, allowing Buddy to think he was one of them. 

The truth is inevitably revealed, and Buddy travels to find his biological father — who doesn’t know he exists — in New York City. The dad, Walter (Jack Tanselle), is a workaholic executive at a publishing house of children’s books who is rough on coworkers like good-natured Deb (Nina Stilabower) and neglectful of wife Emily (Carrie Neal) as well as son Michael (Dylan Aquaviva). Naturally, Walter doesn’t believe this strange man in elvish tights is his son, so has him sent away. Since Buddy claims to be from the North Pole, he is dropped off at the next-best thing — Macy’s. There he ends up among the store’s Santa’s helpers, where he falls in love with fellow “elf” Jovie (Emily Bohannon). 

From there, the story is Buddy’s struggle for acceptance and belonging, along with a chance to save Christmas for his father’s family, and the whole world — when Santa is stranded in Central Park, his sleigh too low on the Christmas Spirit that fuels it (PETA nixed his reindeer a while ago). Other notable roles include Jonathan Studdard as the stressed-out Macy’s Manager, Dick Davis and Kelsey VanVoorst as hapless children’s book writers, and Jeff Angel as Mr. Greenway, the curmudgeonly owner of the publishing company, who wants a new hit Christmas story from Walter — or else!

The feel of the show throughout is best described by one of its song titles: “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” The mood is perpetually sweet, even when characters aren’t “Happy All The Time.” And even when they feel that “Nobody Cares,” there’s a fun dance break. 

Directed by Michael J. Lasley and Anne Beck with choreography by Beck and musical direction by Brent Marty, this is a magical ensemble effort. Seeing it on a matinee with an audience of mostly children, I noticed they were all entranced and swept up in the spirit of it all. 

Just as sweet and special as spaghetti with syrup, “Elf” is yet another holiday must-see in central Indiana, playing through Dec. 24 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, right next to the Christkindlmarkt. (Arrive early for hope of parking.) See www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org for info and tickets.

IndyFringe: Shopping Network!

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Whether it’s the middle of the afternoon and the middle of the night, we can turn on our TV friends with big smiles, big hair, and eager voices, recommending us the most wonderful things to buy for only three low payments of $29.99 (plus shipping and handling).

It’s “Shopping Network!” presented by Betty Rage Productions at the District Theater. Celebrating the network’s 20th Anniversary, in memory of founder Q.V. Coolidge and his wife, their adult children, Ross and MarySueBeth (Kait Burch and Brandon Russell) host a special sale — which must generate a million dollars or the net goes under — with the help of producer Ellen (director Callie Burk-Hartz) and stagehand L. N. (Audrey Stonerock). 

Wouldn’t you love the Gregorian Calendar Birthstone Necklace, or a selection of American Hero Plates with faces with notables including Dale Earnhardt Jr. (just don’t eat off them, OK)? The lady calling in from Bismarck, North Dakota, will take twenty. 

Burch and Russell have excellent chemistry, even when sparks fly between the siblings. And the overall atmosphere is over-the-top fun. Even technical glitches (which hopefully won’t happen again, and Callie might not forgive me bringing them up) worked into the frantic seat-of-pants nature of this production.  

The audience for this show is also the Studio Audience for the Show, responding to cue cards to applaud, or say “WOW!” 

And you’ll want to cheer for their special guest, the hosts’ aunt, Jennifer Coolidge (Kelsey Van Voorst doing a spot-on impression of the comic actress as one of the New-Agey Hollywood celebrities often spotted on shopping shows). The highlight is the Jennifer Coolidge Candle, with which our star says “I can smell colors,” that lucky audience members get to take home.

This could be the last time you see Ross and MarySueBeth on screen (the big one projected at the back of the theater), so have your credit card ready (for Fringe tickets, I mean).

This review knows it’s a review

By John Lyle Belden

Meta (noun): Of a creative work, referring to itself, or to the conventions of the genre; self referential.

Why am I even doing this? I mean, the play, “Anton in Show Business,” even includes its own review. Just pay attention late in the second act; it’s right there. Nothing I need to add.

If you are in the Indianapolis theatre community, you’ve likely already heard about it, produced by the resurrected Betty Rage Productions and directed by its founder, Callie Burk-Hartz. We all know and love Callie, and she is on her game here. She even put it at the same address as her last Betty show, 627 Massachusetts Ave. – TOTS back then, now the District Theatre – “Outback” on the nice alley stage.

The 2000 play by Jane Martin takes its inspiration from Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” written 100 years earlier. With more than a dozen roles played by seven women, the plot involves an effort to stage a version of the Russian’s downer drama that is, as one character puts it, “funny, funny, funny, funny, FUNNY, tragic.”

And if you are in the theatre community, you will love this. The cynical backstage dealings, egos, virtue-signaling, politics, etc., make this one of the best send-ups of regional and community theatre culture since “Waiting for Guffman.” If you aren’t on the “inside,” well, you liked “Guffman,” right? And did I mention this is FUNNY?

Devan Mathias plays TV star Holly Seabe (cast as Masha, I’ll note for Chekhov fans) as that actress you hate-watch but with slightly more talent and maybe a hint of humanity. Meg Ellioy McLane is struggling stage veteran Casey Mulgraw (Olga) trying to stay positive despite her lack of a big break, and that lump she just detected… Sarah Zimmerman is impossibly-sweet and eager Lisabette Cartwright (Irina), an elementary teacher in her first professional role, bringing her back to her native Texas, “Pardon me, Jesus.”

Comic chameleon Kelsey Van Voorst gets a workout here in roles including Actors Express of San Antonio Producing Director (and idealistic Chekhov fan) Kate, and country star-turned-actor Ben Shipwright (Lt. Col. Vershinin). She shows her drama chops by handling the comic beats without getting silly. Tracy Herring gives us her wild take on not one, but two different eccentric directors. Jamillah Gonzalez has her run of the stage as the obligatory Stage Manager/Narrator, as well as a prospective play director and the morally bankrupt Corporate Sponsor. And then there is Audrey Stonerock as Joby, who is literally the audience proxy – but she means well, and we like Audrey, who is nice both in and out of character.

All this, in a play about putting on a play, and how we observe that play, so that it knows it’s a play about players in a play putting on a play, and how the players get played. Play on!

Yes, this show is just as sharp, insightful and funny as it says it is. They even slipped in a couple of updated cultural references. Performances run through August 8; get tickets at indydistricttheatre.org.

Bard Fest presents a ‘First’

By John Lyle Belden

As local theatre struggles to get on stage, the organization Indy Bard Fest (with the help of companies that have presented the annual Shakespeare festival under its banner) is adapting to the times. Its first production is a free outdoor staging of the Bard-inspired “Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged)” by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor (of the infamous Reduced Shakespeare Company).

Bard Fest director Glenn Dobbs has persuaded the trio of Matt Hartzburg, J.B. Scoble, and Kelsey Van Voorst — no strangers to Shakespeare, parody, on-the-spot improv, or even the abridging of Wlm. Shkspr. — to put on silly clothes and risk their lives and dignity at a “Pestilent Pocket Park” in front of a bunch of masked strangers at strategically scattered tables.

It seems that some trivial historical bones were not all that were recently found in a Leicester, England, parking lot; there was also an entirely too long and overwrought script by an aspiring young playwright from Stratford-Upon-Avon. It turned out to be much ado over nothing, a winter’s tale for another era, a massive comedy of errors, but measure for measure a potentially great first draft if broken up into thirty-odd comedies, tragedies and histories.

However, Van Voorst (whom I did “mark down as an Ass” in a past review) claims she has gotten the whole monstrosity edited down to a watchable two acts, and Hartzburg and Scoble, having nothing better to do in quarantine, are playing along.

Imagine if the Complete Works of William Shakespeare were tossed into a blender (metaphorically, paper ruins the blades, trust me) and an improv company was ordered to perform it as soon as possible, with whatever was laying around the prop room (or purchased from the local dollar store, judging by at least one price tag we saw hanging). Yes, it’s Just. That. Fun. Perhaps it’s the incredible talent involved; maybe it’s the incredible flexibility of the material of a serious playwright who loved bawdy jokes; and maybe it’s also the fact that under the law, parody is fair game even if you are poking at Disney. Yes, we all know “Lion King” = “Hamlet”, but did Uncle Walt’s company steal other ideas, and characters like Ariel and Iago, from the Immortal Bard?

There’s even an overarching plot to this mess, involving two famed magical beings (from different Shakespeare plays) who don’t get along, and carry out their feud by scrambling characters and plots from various plays into, eventually, a single setting — kinda like “Into the Woods” (does Sondheim know about this?). 

Alas, poor playgoer, I’m committing this to the ether after the opening weekend performances of July 31-Aug. 2 at the IndyFringe Pocket Park are done. But hark! There are more stagings planned for Aug. 7-8 at The Cat performance space in downtown Carmel; Aug. 21 and 23 in Indy’s Garfield Park; Aug. 28-30 in Noblesville; and more locations in September. See indybardfest.com for details. Oh, and mark that admission to all performances is free! (Sack and other accommodations may cost; donations are always welcome.) 

Civic: ‘Nothing’ actually a big deal

By John Lyle Belden

For the first time in its long history, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre takes on Shakespeare with the comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Directed and adapted to one movie-length act by Emily Rogge Tzucker, the story — traditionally set in medieval Italy — takes place in 1945 as our soldiers come home from the War to an Italian villa in the Hollywood hills. As is usually the case, the character names and Shakespearean dialogue are largely untouched. 

At the fabulous estate of Leonato (Tom Beeler), Don Pedro (Joshua Ramsey) returns with his troops, including Claudio (Nicholas Gibbs), who has fallen for Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Carly Masterson); Benedick (John Kern), who enjoys verbally sparring with Leonato’s shrewish niece, Beatrice (Sara Castillo Dandurand); and Pedro’s surly brother, Don John (Darby Kear), who would rather stir up trouble than celebrate. Events include characters conniving to get Benedick and Beatrice to hook up, as well as the “fatal” wedding ceremony of Claudio and Hero. John’s wicked plot is uncovered by the goofy yet zealous constable Dogberry (Kelsey VanVoorst) and true to the Bard, we’ll get a very happy ending.

The cast also includes Jim Mellowitz as Antonio, Leonato’s brother; Sabrina Duprey and Leah Hodson as Hero’s best friends Margaret and Ursula; Max McCreary and Elisabeth Speckman as Borachio and Conrade, Don John’s devious but careless accomplices; Bill Buchanan and Matt Hartzburg as the Friar and the Sexton; Joe Steiner as Verges, Dogberry’s right-hand man; and Jonathan Doram as Balthazar, the soldier who performs Shakespeare’s song “Sigh No More” (music by Brent Marty), as well as one of Dogberry’s Watchmen, with Buchanan. To complete this list, Hartzburg, Julie Ammons and Stephanie Johnson play house servants.

The convoluted story is easy to follow and the actors do an excellent job of bringing it to life, complete with perfectly overdone comic moments. Master comic VanVoorst is in her element. Kern crisply delivers Benedick’s constant — and eventually contradictory — musings. The look provided by set and lighting designer Ryan Koharchik — with mood-setting skies and interesting circular motifs — and costume designer Adrienne Conces provides the perfect atmosphere for the mischief and merriment, while reflecting the height of the era’s style.

Don’t “let it be marked down that you are an ass” (as Dogberry would say) for missing the opportunity to enjoy Civic’s midwinter romp, through Feb. 22 at the Tarkington stage in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Walken in a winter wonderland

By John Lyle Belden

For those wanting a little something different during the holidays, Defiance Comedy presents a horror thriller in the form of a comedy musical, “Silent Fright.”

It’s Christmas Eve on the North Pole, and with Santa away on his annual duties, the elves are vulnerable to an evil spirit that stalks the workshop. It possesses their souls, making them mindless zombies which take on a voice that sounds like (a bad impression of) Christopher Walken. 

Ryan Ruckman is our traditional Narrator, who should have warned his other role, party elf Jingle Jams — but apparently these stories don’t work that way. Shelby Myers is Trinket, Santa’s assistant, who is in a relationship with chef elf Butterscotch (Chad Woodward), but things are getting too serious. Totally not serious is Kelsey VanVoorst as Candy Sparkles, the friendship elf. Not being taken seriously is Meg McLane as Pipette, the science elf; she’s a bit green (literally).  And John Kern is old elf Chutney Frostbottoms, just three years from retirement (so, yeah, he’s doomed). 

Director Matt Kramer wrote the play and songs, which go for a full two acts, so this isn’t just one of Defiance’s Fringe shows. But it has all the goofy humor you’d expect from the creators of Fringe hits “Volleybrawl” and “Autumn Takes a Tumble.”

Come for the comedy, stay for the weird voice work. Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings, Dec. 6-7 and 13-14, and a matinee Dec. 15, at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair Street. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org; follow @DefianceComedy on social media.

IndyFringe: Vinny the Pooh

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

While waiting for the show to begin, you are serenaded by lounge singer Richard Cheese — and if you know who that is, then you have a good idea of what you are in for with this show.

Apparently, after Christa MaBobbin left the 50 Hectare Forest to marry Toad and take a wild ride in neighboring Frogswallow, things changed. Now these beloved characters have been forced into a life of crime in order to remain a “family.”

Steve Kruze gives Vinny the hopefulness and love of honey that you might remember but he also brings a little street-smarts to the role as well. Kelsey VanVoorst as Sniglet gives us a new interpretation of the original’s worried indecisiveness.

Clay Mabbitt is hilarious as Eyesore, with his gloomy outlook and eyepatch(es). Joshua C. Ramsey channels all of the pompousness of Jowl, speaking in Latin throughout.

Carrie Ann Schlatter’s portrayal of Franga (and puppet child Shmoo) brings all of the fierceness that wild kangaroos are known for.

Rounding out the “Family” is John Kern as Stagger. His energy levels are amazing as he bounds through each scene bringing out the self-centered side of his character.

Morgan Morton, as MaBobbin, deftly maneuvers her character from innocent victim to devious plotter without batting an eyelash.

So come out and see how the corruption and intrigue work out. Just know that in this story, while there are snacks, there will also be blood.

An Approxima Productions joint, remaining performances are Friday and Saturday (Aug. 23-24) at the IndyFringe theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

Bard Fest: The essential ‘R&J’

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.bardfestindy.com.

By John Lyle Belden

In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the one line that stands out for me is near the end: “All are punished.” And as the opening narration famously indicates, the purpose of this tragic play is to show how all involved came to that end.

In the Catalyst Repertory production at Bard Fest, director Zach Stonerock has in his adaptation stripped it to its essence. No elaborate sets; costumes are simple black and white apparel; there are few props, or even weapons beyond a simple knife. The setting is “fair Verona,” but not fixed to any place or era. The focus is solely on the characters, their quirks and quarrels (especially the ongoing Montague-Capulet feud).

The famous “balcony scene,” for instance, is presented in two spotlights, like independent soliloquies. We are reminded that Juliet thinks she is alone, that in longingly asking “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” she doesn’t expect an answer. But when he comes to her, we are so focused on their words and feelings that we hardly notice there was no balcony.

The play’s opening speech, by the way, is delivered by a Chorus who is a blind man – done with subtle brilliance by Tristan Ross. In this way he reminds me of blind Justice, who oversees these foolish men and women coming to their inevitable end.

Elijah Robinson is our impulsive, melancholy Romeo. He is too ruled by his emotions, but this is seen as wonderful to young Juliet, sweetly delivered by Kayla Lee. Her life is strictly ruled by others, but in this boy she sees hope of liberty, away from the constraints of their family names. Thus, despite her showing the dawning of wisdom, the young teen becomes a cult of one to her foolish husband-to-be.

Critical supporting roles are in excellent hands with Kelsey Leigh Miller as Friar Laurence, who tries in vain to make love triumphant; and Beverly Roche as Juliet’s Nurse, a far better maternal figure than her actual mom (Lisa Marie Smith).

Justin Klein is Paris, the young man from out of town caught in the middle of Verona’s passions. Klein is right at home in the Bard’s worlds, but should try to avoid pointy objects.

And to lighten the mood (making the darkness more contrasting) we get excellent comic relief from Audrey Stonerock as the put-upon Capulet servant Peter; and the awesome Kelsey VanVoorst as brash, boastful Mercutio, Romeo’s best bud. (Note to parents: Shakespeare included bawdy innuendo to entertain his audiences; you’ll get quite a bit here.)

With the right editing, “less is more” fully applies – especially here, as Stonerock delivers a fresh perspective on well-known material. The end is the same, thus we understand that “Romeo and Juliet” is not a love story, but a “tale of woe.” Woe to those who miss it.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

Civic presents fun ‘complete’ look at Bard’s catalog

By John Lyle Belden

Whether you have only a passing interest in the Bard of Avon, or have memorized all his plays and sonnets, you will enjoy “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through April 1.

Since this is a more intimate show than the typical Civic play, it is staged in the Studio Theater, at the other end of the lobby from the Tarkington in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Frankie Bolda, Kelsey Van Voorst and Antoine Demmings (as themselves) are Shakespeare enthusiasts – you might even have seen Frankie or Kelsey in one of the Bard’s plays – who, thanks to a script by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, discuss and present the man and all his works in 97 minutes (plus intermission).

The results are fun and unconventional — just as Shakespeare was in his day — with features such as “Othello” in rap, all 16 of the Bard’s comedies as a single mashed-up play, the Histories as a football game and, naturally, “Titus Andronicus” as a cooking show.

The second act is mostly devoted to “Hamlet,” which gets further abbreviated over and over with madcap results.

This trio do an excellent job, not only Bolda and Van Voorst, who are no strangers to the art of making acting silly look easy, but especially Demmings — who had not done stage work before, but should now consider playing Othello for real. A tip of the Elizabethan headgear to John Michael Goodson for his directing, and to Will Tople for the simple yet appropriate stage design.

This house is smaller than the regular Civic stage, so sellouts are likely; call 317-924-6770 or visit civictheatre.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.