Starting over with Stageworthy

By John Lyle Belden

Indy theatre-goers may remember Stageworthy Productions, which had last performed in 2017 at Broadway United Methodist Church. However, a fire in the church’s Community Room late that year destroyed most of SWP’s property.

Aside from fire recovery, the events of recent years forced a lot of starting over for everyone. Seeking a new home for Stageworthy, Artistic Director John Kastner was put in touch with Deb Kent and Jamie Willis of Gallery of Homes Real Estate in the Irvington community of Indianapolis’ eastside. They found him a space near their office, a former garage at 5635 Bonna Ave., which Kastner and friends (SWP is all-volunteer) turned into a nice black-box theatre space.

Dubbed the Stage Door Theater, it hosted SWP’s revival with the Indiana premiere of another story of starting over, “The Impossibility of Now,” through the end of July. This romantic comedy by Y. York is the story of a writer, Carl (played by Larry Adams), who recovers from a coma with no memory of his prior life. His wife, Miranda (Alyssa Johnson), is astonished to find as he recovers bits and pieces of the past, and relearns words, he is completely happy and cheerful. This is far different from the bitter “soul-sucking” man she was about to leave, which complicates her plan to move out and live with her lover, Anthony (Jaime Johnson), a children’s dentist.

Adams practically glows expressing Carl’s joy at every word he rediscovers, envisioning them hanging in the air or falling like snowflakes. He even savors the word “savor.” Negative words seem to physically hurt, though. His rebooted brain confuses memories with movie scenes. Also, stories told him by people whose biographies he wrote come back to him like they are his own experiences. Yet the old Carl is a stranger to him, even when he brings himself to read his old journals. He even takes an odd delight at a negative review to one of his books.

Alyssa Johnson makes Miranda surprisingly sympathetic for a woman who was about to leave her husband, as we see her personal insecurities and how she is caught in the middle of what had felt like an easy decision, suddenly vastly complicated. She’s not heartless, so she seeks a way to true happiness, even if it means breaking a vow.

Meanwhile, Jaime Johnson gives Anthony a gentle descent from anxious and impatient, to kind of a jerk, to total jerkdom. (However, in this play, the dentist isn’t eaten by a plant.)

Hopefully another stage will host this easily-produced charmer. Until then, I’ll note the plot’s conclusion is a statement on the importance of mental health and being willing to ask for help. Carl has been given a second chance in more ways than one, but it shouldn’t have to take a major injury to kickstart your happiness.

Speaking of new chances, Kastner says he can use any and all assistance as he works on bringing the next production to Stage Door. Plans are for this to be a resource not only for SWP, but also to the Irvington community. At stageworthy.org, find Kastner’s address and email, as well as online forms to donate or volunteer.

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.

Switch delivers deep drama of ‘Diviners’ 

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “The Diviners,” by Jim Leonard Jr., is a thoroughly Hoosier story, with Indiana setting and characters, and it premiered at Hanover College in 1980. But it plumbs deep into all of us, and it makes an excellent start for The Switch Theatre in Fishers.

In the last days of the Hoover presidency, with the nation sunk into the Great Depression, we meet a rather extraordinary boy. Buddy (Colin McCabe) is 14 but hasn’t had a bath in at least a decade, ever since nearly drowning in the river, losing his mother to the current as well as a degree of his mental capacity. His fear of water gives him such sensitivity to its presence that he became a natural “diviner,” capable of finding underground streams for wells, and feeling approaching rain even while the sky is clear. 

His father Ferris Layman (Larry Adams) and 16-year-old sister Jennie Mae (Lauren Hall) take care of him, dealing with his impulsive behavior and understanding his odd speech pattern that constantly has him talking in third person. Fellow citizens of the small town of Zion, Indiana, largely accept him as he is, including Goldie (Jean Adams) who runs the local diner and keeps plenty of root beer on hand for Buddy, and Norma Henshaw (Debbie Underwood), who runs the local dry-goods store with her daughter, Darlene (Gloria Merrell).

The neighbors, farmer Basil Bennett and his wife Luella (Dan Flahive and Ginger Home) see Buddy’s abilities as a blessing, Daniel Shock and Mason Tudor play their farmhands, Melvin and Dewey (who is sweet on Darlene). 

Into this world comes C.C. Showers (Earl Campbell), a former preacher from Kentucky who gave up his vocation to be a common laborer. He takes a job at Ferris’s mechanic shop, and takes an interest in helping Buddy. In town, Norma, being deeply religious, sees the man’s arrival as a sign that the local church will be rebuilt, and true to her steel-trap mind, will accept no other explanation.

Directed by Lori Raffel, the performances flesh out the characters well, but the focus is mainly on Buddy. McCabe embodies the role with the skill of someone much older — he is an eighth-grader, but his parents said he has been performing for years. Hall, Merrell, and Tudor also acquit themselves well. The veteran performers wear their roles like comfortable clothes. Campbell does well in spite of a script that leaves many questions about Showers unanswered — this is not his story, but it feels like there is one to be told. 

This play has gentle humor and a Waltons-like folksiness, but its still waters run deep in what is ultimately a tragic story. Performances run through Oct. 6 at The Switch, located inside the Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers. Get information and tickets at theswitchtheatre.com.

 

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.

Before CCP shuffles off: a bold ‘Buffalo’

By John Lyle Belden

A quick note for those who haven’t heard: Carmel Community Players has lost its lease at the Clay Terrace shopping center, where “American Buffalo” is their last play on that stage, and is in the process of finding a new home. The next production, the musical “Ragtime,” will be presented at the Ivy Tech theater in Noblesville in April. For more details see carmelplayers.org.

Famed stage and screen writer David Mamet once said that the key to writing drama is to present a character wanting something, then placing obstacles in the way of him getting it. (Apparently swearing a lot is important, too.)

In Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” on CCP’s Clay Terrace stage for one more weekend, Donny (Larry Adams) really wants a valuable coin. It was just another trinket at his junk shop, but some slick buyer came in and bought it from him at a surprisingly high price – now Donny is sure it was worth a lot more, and that this man has other priceless coins as well. Faithful but mentally challenged Bobby (Daniel Shock) is eager to do “the job” for Donny, and not just be the lookout, but Teach (Earl Campbell) insists that the burglary be entrusted to him. Donny agrees, but also wants another accomplice – but can you trust a man who possibly cheated you at cards the night before?

Under the direction of Lori Raffel, this production presents the Mamet formula as a study in complex and conflicted characters. Donny wrestles with his pain at feeling he was taken advantage of, his feelings of responsibility for Bobby, and the need to get one good high-dollar score – Adams works all these subtleties well. Campbell is sharp as a jerk who talks big, but is no fool. Bobby is a cypher, making one unsure what he does and doesn’t know, and does and doesn’t understand – and why is he always asking for money? – Shock is spot-on in his delivery.

It’s that simple, and that complex. Add in some F-words and you’ve got classic Mamet, ending this chapter of the CCP’s ongoing story on a very strong note. Get tickets while you can: call 317-815-9387 or visit the website.