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.

Local writers keeping TOTS busy

By John Lyle Belden

For one more weekend, Theatre on the Square has a sort of double-feature going on: two distinct plays (each requiring its own ticket) by local playwrights, each exploring personal change in different ways: “Puppet Man,” by Andy Black; and “Clutter,” by Lou Harry.

“Puppet Man” is about a prison inmate with serious issues who finds solace by participating in the institution’s puppet shows held for visiting children. Pretty Boy (Taylor Cox) can’t get his guilty mind to shut up, so he dulls the sound with drugs, making his situation worse. When he finds out about the puppet program, his dealer Word (Carey Shea) makes him join in a plot to use the volunteer instructor’s privileges to sneak contraband into the prison. That compassionate visitor, Doc (Miki Mathioudakis), lets Pretty Boy into the program despite suspicions by her and the other inmate puppeteers, especially Sidewinder (Josh Ramsey). Fabulous Fantasia (Josiah McCruiston) and the mysterious Dayton (Matt Anderson), who only speaks through his puppets, help him to craft “Pretty Girl,” the puppet star of the next show. Then Pretty Boy discovers that the voice he now hears in his head is hers.

Though I am not personally familiar with the culture of life behind bars, Black’s story feels real enough, with desperate men making desperate choices while others calmly plot to take advantage of them, a place where the smallest things we take for granted outside have enormous value. While each character is a broadly-drawn type, they don’t come off as cliché. Cox handles being the central character with skill – a tall order, given McCruiston and Anderson’s ability to steal their scenes. Pretty Boy is a complex personality, and his mental issues provide the underlying drama – is this show more like “Avenue Q,” in which the puppets teach us all life lessons, or “Hand to God,” in which the puppets channel dark impulses? Kinda both, actually, punctuated with dark humor. I encourage you to see for yourself what I mean.

“Clutter, or, The Moving Walkway will Soon be Coming to an End” is three scenes depicting the changes in four people’s lives over six years. First we meet Bobby (Ben Fraley) and Eddy (Nick Barnes), two best friends struggling to keep their business afloat. Eddy is the more scattered of the two, which only adds to Bobby’s tension. Aside from planning a networking party, they discuss their romantic prospects with an offstage coworker. We meet that woman, Barb (Anna Lee), in the second scene, three years later, talking about the frustrations of life with her best friend, Bev (Kelsey Van Voorst). Eventually, Barb sees a man she used to work with offstage, and decides to take her chances with him. Move on to the third scene, again three years later, involving all four characters at the home two of them share.

The theme seems to center on inevitable endings and the struggle to improve and change one’s path. One character appears to have turned his life around with “Mission” – a self-help method that helps him focus his life, but doesn’t automatically solve his problems. All seem to be seeking something new, yet something that remains stable, at the same time. Note a “shoe is on the other foot” metaphor with which woman wears the red shoes. The show has dynamite dialogue and sharp humor, thanks to Harry, but subtle pacing that – along with being a one-act – gives the sense that it is part of a larger story, feeling incomplete by itself.

There is a slight over-run on stage times – “Clutter” on the second stage follows “Puppet Man” on the main stage – but if you spring for both shows, it’s possible they could hold the curtain for the second. Or, as they are independent stories, you can simply see one or the other. Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Jan. 20-22, at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave.; call 317-685-8687 or see tots.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.

A merry time with Bard’s ‘Wives’

By John Lyle Belden

I’ve found that a play is much more entertaining if the actors involved seem to be enjoying themselves, especially with a comedy. And I get the impression that the players in Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project’s production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” are having a blast.

Centering on the popular character of bawdy, naughty Sir John Falstaff, this is one of the easier Shakespeare comedy plots to follow. Though we start with the typical multitude of characters thrown at us in the opening scenes, the groupings and motivations are fairly easy to sort out.

Falstaff (Adam Crowe) sets his wandering eye on two noble women, played by Amy Hayes and Claire Wilcher, the wives, respectively, of Ford (Rob Johansen) and Page (Josh Ramsey). The ladies, already annoyed by being wooed by the fat drunkard, discover they have been sent the exact same love letter and conspire their revenge. Meanwhile, Ford, learning of Falstaff’s advances, disguises himself as lecherous “Brook,” who approaches Falstaff and offers to pay him to have Mistress Ford after he’s done with her.

And in the other main plot, which will lead to the traditional wedding at the end, Page’s daughter Anne (Chelsea Anderson) is asked to choose between crass French Dr. Caius (Gari Williams) and shy Slender (Kelsey VanVoorst) – she wants neither, choosing Fenton (Benjamin Schuetz), who her parents do not like.

Another key character is Mistress Quickly (Carrie Schlatter), who acts as a fixer in these situations for anyone willing to pay her cash. Michael Hosp plays a Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, and other supporting characters are played by Frankie Bolda as Rugby, Zach Joyce as Shallow and Adam Tran as Pistol.

In an interesting casting twist, the character of Simple, who more than lives up to the name as he is sent in various directions on multiple errands, is played by one of the other actors not involved in the moment’s particular scene, and never the same one twice. Wisdom Tooth and director Bill Simmons also made a gentle parody of the Shakespearean tradition of boys playing female roles by having some male roles played by women (perhaps a nod to British slapstick “panto” tradition?).

The setting has been transported from Olde England to mid-twentieth-century America – around 1954, when the song “Hernando’s Hideaway” was a hit – at The Windsor Hotel & Resort in a mythical Miami or Palm Beach with a Thames River nearby. The art-deco look and ’50s summer wear add to the light atmosphere of the play.

The Elizabethan language, however, is kept intact. But with spirited delivery, including occasional abuse of the fourth wall, this cast brings out the belly-laughs from the audience and play off each other so animatedly that the best word for this experience is simply “fun.”

The play is often criticized for its relative simplicity, but it has its own depth – and how much profundity does one need in a farce? Presented to us in our sitcom-fueled culture, this show comes off like a classic “I Love Lucy.” Hayes and Wilcher definitely give Mistresses Ford and Page a Lucy-and-Ethel chemistry. And like those ladies, they manage to stay one step ahead of the bumbling men to wind up on top.

Performances are May 20-22 and 27-28 at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets see indyfringe.org or wisdomtooththeatreproject.org.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)