Shakespeare fun and foolishness set to music

By John Lyle Belden

It’s hardly a new idea to base a musical on a Shakespeare play (a recent Oscar-winning remake of an Oscar-winning film comes to mind). New York based songwriter Shaina Taub, with Kwame Kwei-Armah, adapted the Bard’s comedy “Twelfth Night” for its musical debut in Central Park in 2018.

Southbank Theatre Company brings that version to the IndyFringe Theatre (outdoors preferably, but on the Basile stage in bad weather) through May 8. 

If the story doesn’t easily spring to mind, note it is where we get the quote, “If music be the food of love, play on.” The play checks many of the boxes for a Shakespeare comedy: disguises, mistaken identities, siblings separated, wild wooing, nobles who will not marry, and ending up with a wedding anyway.

What makes this musical version exciting and interesting is that Taub’s songs do more than just put a tune behind Shakespeare’s words. They illuminate the themes of this old story, making it fresh and relatable. This makes the show the perfect companion to a traditional production of the play.

For instance, our central character Viola (Michelle Wofford), a woman recently arrived in mythical Illyria (vicinity of today’s Albania) finds it safer to disguise herself as a man, opening up surprising opportunities. In the song “Viola’s Soliloquy,” she sings of “the Devil’s blessing” that simply wearing trousers gives her.  

Viola, taking the name Cesario, finds her/himself between Duke Orsinio (Dave Pelsue), his employer, and the Countess Olivia (Natalie Fischer), who keeps spurning Orsinio’s advances, but has found herself smitten with Cesario. However, the Viola within the disguise pines for Orsinio, who only sees in her a dutiful young man.

Still, this wouldn’t be a Shakespeare comedy without the silly subplots. There is much opportunity for merriment in the Countess’s court, with sack-sotted Sir Toby Belch (Mark Cashwell), worst-at-wooing Sir Andrew (Kim Egan), mischievous Maria (Brittney Michelle Davis) and Fabian (Jordan Paul Wolf), who all seek to take pompous Molvolio (Hannah Boswell) down a peg or two.

Then there is the arrival of Viola’s lost-at-sea twin brother Sebastian (Matthew Blandford), accompanied by his rescuer Antonio (Z Cosby), who braves arrest to be by the man he secretly loves. Other roles are played by Brant Hughes, Ron Perkins and Yolanda Valdivia, who is also on hand as Officiant for the inevitable marriages. 

All this is accompanied by a live band, and the wit and wisdom of accordion-wielding jester Feste (Paige Scott).

With all the action of the classic comedy, but condensed down to a manageable hour and a half, this romp is an excellent showcase for the talented cast. Scott is simply amazing, whether giving chiding counsel, a beautiful ballad, or some handy narration to the audience. Speaking of fools, Boswell is a riot in an arc that goes from bombastic to pathetic, but always fun. Cashwell employs his improv skills and comic chops to great effect. Pelsue has long cornered the market on cool-guy-who-can-sing, so is totally in his element. Fischer has the sweet/feisty mix down perfectly. And Wafford is endearing with an inner strength befitting the character. Everyone else? Awesome, awesome, awesome – directed by Max McCreary with musical direction by Ginger Stoltz.

Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings, and Sunday afternoon, at IndyFringe, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis. Get information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org.

Diamond’s rough drama gets Monument-al treatment

By John Lyle Belden

Two academics, an actor, and a doctor walk onto a stage.

Thus begins the drama “Smart People” by Lydia R. Diamond, presented by Monument Theatre Company at the Fonseca Theatre Company’s Basile Theatre. We are introduced to our four characters each finding themselves in frustrating circumstances: tenure-track Harvard professor Brian White (Maverick Schmidt) berates his students for not getting the gist of what he sees as obvious conclusions; psychology prof Ginny Yang (Kim Egan) tries to present her research findings, interrupted by trivial questions; aspiring actor Valerie Johnston (Barbara Michelle Dabney) struggles to apply her MFA-informed approach to a Shakespeare role while the director gives her inconsistent, illogical instructions; and Dr. Jackson Moore (Jamaal McCray) answers to an administrator berating him for taking life-saving initiative with a patient over his supervisor’s instructions. Ever feel like people just don’t get what you are trying to say?

Over the course of these two long acts, their four lives somehow weave together (how small was Cambridge, Mass., in 2008?), leading up to a borderline-intervention dinner with the whole cast late in the play. While each person’s niggling frustration continues through the plot, the big controversy is in White’s research, in which he publicly presents that he has biologically quantified “white privilege” (Diamond abandoned subtlety; the professor’s name is only Exhibit A).

The play has a lot to say, and says it, as things progress mainly because that’s how Diamond wrote them, which means I have to give a lot of credit to this foursome in giving their individual characters dimension and some degree of credible life.

It’s an interesting comedy that includes jokes the characters themselves point out aren’t funny. Yet there are some bits of humor, mostly in the same vein as Avenue Q’s “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” (but without the singing). Mainly we get a series of interesting scenes with thought-provoking points. For instance, White’s rants point out well-meaning white liberals’ self-imposed blindness to their passive racism. But flaws in the research, such as the near-impossible task of defining a singular “white” culture to have this inborn bigotry, get brushed aside. Non-whites other than African-Americans get token mention. In one moment, Yang counsels an off-stage Japanese-American woman who identifies as white – apparently the psychologist’s insistence in this unseen person embracing an Asian identity eventually leads to a suicide attempt, but this plot thread leads nowhere.

One can tell that this play looked awesome in the scripts given to the cast and director Rayanna Bibbs. There’s so much “meat” to chew on as an actor, a wide range of emotions, controversial moments to make your audience do a “wait-what?!” And it all caps off with the then-improbable election of Barack Obama (not a big spoiler). For those reading this who really dig such drama exercises, and the big-issue conversations you’ll have on the way home, “Smart People” could be a smart choice. Even better, Monument is doing a pay-what-you-can season.

So, whether you want to give a donation for the company’s artistic efforts, or you are just a fellow starving artist who can only give what’s in your pockets at the moment, make your reservation at monumenttheatrecompany.org. The play runs through Aug. 15. Find the stage at 2508 W. Michigan, indoors (box office staff are masked).

ALT: Intense drama includes talkback after every show

By John Lyle Belden

American Lives Theatre, the latest new company to the Indianapolis stage scene, makes a bold and provocative debut with its production of Pulitzer finalist “Gloria” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

In the offices of a New York-based magazine, aspiring writers, stuck as assistants to faceless editors, snipe at each other as they lament their lack of opportunity, discuss their exit strategies, and seek to take advantage of the breaking story of a celebrity death. Dean (Joe Barsanti) is facing his 30th birthday with the vain hope that his memoir on his struggles in a dying industry will make all this worth it. Ali (Morgan Morton) is very go-along-get-along, which infuriates super-ambitious Kendra (Kim Egan). It’s the last day for intern Miles (Joshua Short), who is questioning his career path, now that he has seen the beast from the inside. The general commotion in this room infuriates Lorin (Tom Weingartner), trying to keep up with the demands of being chief fact-checker down the hall. Meanwhile, Gloria (Bridget Haight) — generally quiet and kinda weird, but a constant presence for the past 15 years — keeps dropping by, appearing anxious. Could this have something to do with the housewarming she hosted the night before, to which only Dean showed up?

This is about all I dare reveal of the plot. Director (and ALT founder) Chris Saunders notes that the content of this play includes a “trigger warning” due to a very specific trauma at the heart of the story. But I won’t spill, as the shock is an essential part of the drama. 

Fortunately, there is plenty of satirical and workplace humor, even as the characters become haunted by their circumstances. Haight also plays Nan, an editor with her own perspective that receives attention. Most of the cast also have additional roles, notably Short as a rather in-charge Starbucks barista. All have talents well up to their task.

“Gloria” is not so much about what happens, but rather how we deal with it. As each person comes to terms with their role and reactions, it becomes a question, as Saunders asks in the post-show discussion, “who owns the rights to trauma?”

Yes, there’s a talk-back — after every performance. Saunders hosts, and the actors may also get involved. Given what happens in the play, this can be a very important part of the overall experience.

Performances are Friday, Saturday (Jan. 17-18) and the next Friday through Sunday (Jan. 24-26) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair. Get info and tickets at americanlivestheatre.org or indyfringe.org.

Restless dead haunt Fonseca Theatre drama

By Wendy Carson

Inspired by the recent trend of ghost investigations, a new drama, “The Brothers Paranormal,” appears on the new stage of Fonseca Theatre Company.

Delia is haunted. She is convinced that her new apartment is haunted by a Thai ghost. For the past six months she has heard whooshes, floorboard creaks, footsteps, and has now seen apparitions of a creepy young girl. While her loving husband, Felix, has not shared in any of this phenomena, he supports her decision to blow all of their savings to hire the titular service to find proof of this and hopefully restore their lives, still coming together after losing their New Orleans home to Katrina and relocating to the Midwest.

Max is haunted. The son of Thai immigrants, he and his older brother, Visarut, are just barely scraping by. Delia’s request is the first job they have attained. Max has had to leave college, his West Coast home, friends and girlfriend behind to help Visarut care for their schizophrenic mother, Tasanee. Max also worries about Visarut’s drinking problem, made worse by what their mother did.

Felix is haunted. He works as a paramedic and thought his job would be constantly saving lives. However, he feels the truth is that more often than not, he is just trying to keep them alive for a little bit longer. The ones that die under his care weigh heavy on his soul.

Can the brothers find proof of Delia’s ghost, or is her own family history of schizophrenia to blame for these manifestations? What is real? What is an illusion? Why do some cultures celebrate death and others fear it? These are among the questions posed by Prince Gomolvilas’s engrossing script.

Sean Qui is excellent as Max, running the gamut of feelings, especially towards his family. Ian Cruz is a steady presence as Visarut. Diane Tsao is charming as mother Tesanee.

Dena Toler is also in fine form as Delia, her performance putting her fright into the audience. Ansley Valentine, as Felix, delivers as a man slowly realizing he can only evade the truth for so long.

And a shuddering salute to Kim Egan as the spectre. Director (and company namesake) Bryan Fonseca uses her and the cleverly designed set to accomplish a rare feat – to make a horror stage play truly frightening. There were moments audience members were practically jumping out of their seats.

There is more to this play than the scares, of course. It fulfills the FTC objective of showing and making us consider different cultural and ethnic perspectives. But it also makes one hell of a Halloween-season experience. Performances run through Nov. 10 at FTC’s newly-remodeled Basile Building, 2508 W. Michigan St. in Indy’s near-Westside. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

Making Oceania Great Again

By John Lyle Belden

Citizens: Do not look away! You are witnessing a rare insight into Room 101 of the Ministry of Love, where thought-criminal Winston Smith will offer his confession and confront his insanity, his failure to love Big Brother.

This is “1984.” (Your official Ministry of Truth calendar should reflect this.) The plus-good Citizens of Monument Theatre Company are providing you this opportunity, where they expose the troubling writings of George Orwell, as adapted by Michael Gene Sullivan, directed for MTC by David Ian Lee.

Smith, who also purports to be an actor named Nathan Thomas, has written his crimes in a diary which is read and re-enacted by Party Members Riley Leonard, Raven Newbolt, Kim Egan and Deont’a Stark. Thomas naturally embodies a complex patchwork of emotions — broken, yet quietly defiant. Leonard presents the pre-arrest Smith burdened by ennui and desperate for a world that makes sense to him. Newbolt plays Julia, the woman Smith risks all for, so effectively her cohorts start to question her loyalty to the Party. Egan, on the other hand, is a true believer, eager for this trial to move on to condemnation and execution. Stark nicely takes on roles including Party officer O’Brien, who eventually shows up himself, in the body of Michael R. Tingley. Karen Sternberg provides the voice of alerts of victories by Oceania forces and other vital news.

This method of presenting Smith’s criminal activity provides an intense experience in the intimate confines of Indy Convergence. The context is made contemporary by the use of hand-held telescreens (smartphones) and the autocratic atmosphere does feel familiar in the world outside. Perhaps the most chilling aspect is the confidence of Tingley’s O’Brien, aware that his role is not player in this game, but the dealer – and the House always wins.

This Citizen rates this drama as double-plus good.

To avoid potential arrest by the Thought Police, it is advisable to make your way to 2611 W. Michigan St. for the remaining weekend. Information and tickets at www.monumenttheatrecompany.com.

Fat Turtle drama a matter of maturity

By John Lyle Belden

In “Adults,” the new play by Jeremy Grimmer in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company, the characters are all adults.

They are consenting adults, okay with having sex whenever they want. They are adults who are free to gather and play video games at any time. They can feel comfortable enough with any situation to not let it bother them. They can say “I love you.”

“Life isn’t easier, just because it looks freer,” says E.J. (Colin Landberg). This is his house, which he inherited and now lives in alone. One night he brought home Sarah (Afton Shepard), who decided to be “not married” for one day. She awakens shocked to find him fixing her breakfast — is this the way adults do this? Charmed and conflicted, she engages in one more romp before going home to her husband — then returns about once a week. Her marriage is crumbling, having lost its intimacy, but she has kids so she doesn’t divorce; it seems like the adult thing to do.

Old high school friends Meg (Kim Egan), Seth (Josh Turner) and Fred (Brad Root) come over to E.J.’s to play a shared online wargame. While each has a life (and Seth a wife) outside this gathering, all that matters here is leveling up and what snacks are being offered. They even eventually meet Sarah (introduced as E.J.’s neighbor) and are totally cool with her. Why wouldn’t they be? We’re all adults here.

Thus we go through five years of an affair and unusual friendships, the events that lead up to today, when our couple has to make hard — adult — choices.

Directed by Fat Turtle co-founder Aaron Cleveland, this script feels almost too polished to be new, and the cast give solid performances, especially Landberg as easy-going heart-on-sleeve E.J. and Shepard as sweet but girl’s-got-issues Sarah. While even the characters note the improbability of their situation lasting so long, this only goes to the overall atmosphere of arrested development throughout the cast. We find that it’s not enough just to be an adult; at some point you also have to grow up.

Be warned that another theme element is food — starting with the awesome smell of bacon for the first scene in the air before the play even starts. It might be best to have dinner before the show.

This sharp drama nicely leavened with comic elements is worth the effort to find, with one remaining weekend of performances, Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 17-20, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave. on the grounds of old Fort Benjamin Harrison off of North Post Road in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at fatturtletheatre.com.