Shakespeare vs. six-shooters in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

Upon seeing that Main Street Productions in Westfield has produced “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” one might think that someone dusted off an old script — after all, the John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart movie, and the popular song, came out in 1962. But this play was written in 2014 — by Jethro Compton, based more on the original Dorothy M. Johnson story than the film. And this Western, set toward the end of the 19th century, has a lot to say to us in the 21st.

Rance Foster (Matt Hartzburg), a scholar seeking his fortune out West, is beaten and left for dead by Valance (Adam Davis) and his gang. Rescued by local cowboy Bert Barricune (R.C. Thorne), Foster is brought to a saloon owned and run by Miss Hallie Jackson (Sabrina Duprey) in the tiny town of Twotrees. The local Marshal (Kevin Shadle) isn’t much help as he feels the small bounty on Valance’s head isn’t near worth facing his gun. 

As Foster recovers, he discovers that “Reverend” Jim (Xavier Jones), the black boy who grew up with Hallie, has perfect memory — having earned his nickname by memorizing the Bible just from hearing it, despite being illiterate. Foster decides to teach Jim — and Hallie, and anyone who’s interested — to read, with the help of books he carries with him, including a volume of Shakespeare sonnets.

Hints of civilization don’t set well with Liberty Valance, who wants to keep the territory as lawless as possible for as long as possible, while enriching himself and his gang. So, he comes to visit Twotrees, setting in motion the events that lead to his final showdown.

The play is directed by Veronique Duprey, Sabrina’s mother. She said that when she found the script a couple of years ago and looked for an opportunity to stage it, she had not thought of her daughter to take the role of Hallie. But now, the casting seems perfect. An experienced young actress, Sabrina convincingly holds her own with the men — much like her character.

Other roles are also well-cast. Hartzburg wins us over as the idealistic tenderfoot; Thorne projects strength even standing still; Davis is perfectly chilling; Jones is outstanding in a surprisingly complex character; and Shadle takes what could be a comic role and stays true to the drama, playing the Marshal on the fine line of pragmatism and cowardice. Supporting roles are played by Cody Holloway, Alex Dantin, Robert Fimreite, Rich Steinberg and Rob Stokes.

Tom Smith lends his strong voice and presence as the Narrator, sort of a living embodiment of the Spirit of the West.

More than the events surrounding a legendary shootout, this is a story of love and loyalty, finding the strength to make one’s self and world better, and bravery beyond the ability to hold a gun steady.

And drinking a lot of fake whiskey (it is set in a saloon, after all).

Note the play includes coarse language and the use of loud blanks in the pistols (the venue is kind of small). Main Street Productions will break ground on a new playhouse in downtown Westfield later this month, but for now performances are still in the old former church building at 1836 W. State Road 32, through Oct. 13. Call 317-402-3341 or visit westfieldplayhouse.org.

Mud Creek presents a little mystery with a lot of laughs

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a real treat to see stage veterans cut loose on a good American farce, such as the faces familiar to audiences at Mud Creek Players generating laughter with “Exit the Body.”

In the early 1960s – when telephones were not only still connected to the wall, in rural areas you still had to talk to the local operator – popular mystery writer Crane Hammond (played by Linda Eberharter) is spending a few weeks in the New England countryside to relax and work on her next novel, dragging reluctant secretary Kate (Barb Weaver) along. The cottage, just down the road from best friend Lillian (Judy McGroarty) and arranged by local real estate agent Helen (Ann Ellerbrook), has secrets of its own – including the possibility of hidden stolen diamonds! It appears that the housekeeper, Jenny (Savannah Jay), is in cahoots with local thug Randolph (Eric Matters) to recover those jewels, wherever they are.

Meanwhile, Lillian introduces her new husband, Lyle (Tim Long), but because of trouble with the old husband, she tells people that he is actually Crane’s husband, Richard (Joe Forestal – he’ll show up eventually). For local flavor, we have handyman/taxi driver/sheriff Vernon (Kevin Shadle). And for the titular Body, we have Phillip Smith (Tom Riddle), who could be anybody.

The hilarious slamming-door antics are helped along by a closet at the center of the set (designed by Jay Ganz) that opens into both the living room and the backstage library. The script and cast make full use of its comic and spooky (the body was there, now it’s gone!) possibilities. Though a mystery, this show delivers more laughs than chills, much like a Scooby-Doo episode for grown-ups.

Ellerbrook has Crane dealing with being in the plot rather than writing it, with McGroarty’s Lillian welcoming the diversion and Weaver’s Kate chewing the scenery with biting sarcasm. Long has Lyle just taking it all in stride. Generating the most laughs are Shadle – with a style reminiscent of a Carol Burnett cast member, keeping his character at the edge of absurdity – and Jay, whose airhead Jenny manages to charm while squeezing all the corn out of a Southern accent.

“Exit the Body” runs through Sept. 29 at the Mud Creek Players “Barn” at 9740 E. 86th St. (between Castleton area and Geist Reservoir). Call 317-290-5343 or visit www.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.