IndyFringe: Gloria Mundi

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

Gloria (Kayla Jo Pulliam) is not having a good day. She is an addict, out on parole and living in a halfway house. Last night an angel, Harold (Bryson Kramer), came to give her the news that she is to be the parent of the new child of God. When she tells her ex, Jody (Cameron Pride) this “happy” news, is it any wonder he,* and social worker Harold (Kramer), suspect she is using again?

This sets the plot of “Gloria Mundi,” Pamela Morgan’s tale of recovery, parenting, relationships, and faith presented by Nomad Theater Company under the direction of Ashleigh Rae-Lynn.

Morgan and company have created a story that is full of hilarious moments (“the doughnuts have suffered the consequences”) and heartbreaking emotion (the fate of Lanie, Gloria’s first child).

“Don’t f*** it up this time,” angelic Harold advises, and it’s possible that Gloria already has. Through twists both dramatic and funny, we’re taken on a wild ride that ends in a miracle of hope no one expects.

Witness this blessed event, 5:15 p.m. today (as we post this) and 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3-4, at the District Theatre.

(*EDIT: Character’s pronouns are he/they, we were informed by Morgan after this initially posted, and pronoun and name spelling have been updated.)

IndyFringe: Gray Pride

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Norman Lasiter, with musical director Christopher Marlow, teamed up to bring us one of the most enjoyable hours of cabaret theater I believe I have ever seen.

Lasiter’s stories of growing up in a small town south of Indianapolis, pursuing his career in New York and California, and being an out and proud since 1980 (he was literally born in a closet) are punctuated with familiar songs that further enhance the tales.

Even during the darkest memories (living in New York during the worst of the AIDS crisis), he finds hope to keep enduring in memory of those lost.

The whole show is upbeat and cheeky, and Lasiter’s voice is sheer beauty. Marlow even gets a chance to shine on his own during their rendition of “I Love a Piano.” I know I say this a lot, but this show is certainly not to be missed.

However, there are very few tickets left for his next two performances at the IndyFringe Theatre – 7 p.m. tonight (as we post this) and noon Sunday, Sept. 3-4 – so get yours immediately, grab a libation, and settle back for an hour you won’t forget.

IndyFringe: Jewel Box Revue 2022

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Tom Alvarez and Dustin Klein’s Magic Thread Cabaret celebrates the past and showcases today’s talent with Jewel Box Revue 2022 at the District Theatre.

The original Revue toured nationally and internationally from 1936 to 1999, featuring live-singing “female impersonators” and a “male impersonator” – what we now call drag queens and kings. With their widespread appeal and fame, as Alvarez notes, “these pioneers were among the first to crack open the closet door.”

Today’s jewels are Miss Pearl (Keith Potts), Miss Sapphire (Isaiah Moore), Miss Opal (Ervin Gainer) and Miss Ruby (Jim Melton); with emcee Danny Diamond (Kelsey VanVoorst); dancers and co-choreographers Topaz (Xavier Medina) and Jade (Jade Perry); and sparkling on-stage musicians Galen Morris on bass, Matthew Dupree on drums, and music director Klein on piano.

Alvarez wrote and directed the show, featuring songs from Broadway and past greats.

Among the various numbers: Potts is exquisite in delivering the Judy Garland hit “The Man That Got Away” as well as “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the musical “Company.” Moore has us feeling Etta James’ “At Last.” Opal gives proper sass to Pearl Bailey’s “You Can Be Displaced.” Melton is arousing with “Don’t Tell Mama” from “Cabaret” and inviting with Rosemary Clooney’s “C’mon-a My House.” Even VanVoorst gets into the act, challenging Potts with “Anything You Can Do.”

Wendy and I were fortunate to get into a sold-out audience. It’s recommended you act fast to get in to see this marvelous show, 7:15 p.m. Thursday or 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1-2.

IndyFringe: The Real Black Swan

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Popular Fringe storyteller Les Kurkendaal-Barrett returns to bring us “The Real Black Swan: Confessions of America’s First Black Drag Queen.” In the process, he gets in a few confessions of his own.

For most of his life, Les had a Pink Bubble. It’s like the one Glinda the Good Witch rides in on in “The Wizard of Oz.” Only he can see it, but it protects him.

More recently, Les had a lump in his thigh. It turned out to be a tumor, but neither it, nor the growing Black Lives Matter movement outside his doors concerned him, as the Pink Bubble remained intact.

As he prepared for surgery to remove and examine the lump, Les learned of an article about William Dorsey Swann, who was born a slave in the 1800s and went on to become a Black drag queen (reportedly the first) as well as the first LGBTQ activist on record. This being good material for his next show, Les let it into the bubble. Then he checked in to the hospital.

Under anesthesia, Les drifted in a haze, surrounded by the bubble’s pink glow. Then he saw someone walking towards him – this person was tall, Black, and in a 19th-century dress. In a gruff voice, Swann declared, “You need to start feeling things!”

POP!

We’re not in Oz anymore; this dream takes a more “Ebenezer Scrooge” turn, as Les – and we – examine Swann’s life, and the moments where Les could have used The Queen’s strength. His talent for entertaining us with his introspective stories is blended with a fascinating biography. We get an insight into the history of “gay life” (in both senses of the word) in old Washington, D.C. As one would expect, Swann saw his share of trouble, but being taught how to write while in jail led to his petitioning President Grover Cleveland for a pardon – securing his place in history, regardless of the outcome.

This exercise in self-reflection – we learn why “Kurkendaal” is spelled that way – coupled with seeing worlds outside the bubble, make for yet another great performance in Les’s exceptional repertoire.

Pop on over to the District Theatre to see him 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25, and 5:15 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28.

IndyFringe: ShMILF Life

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

“ShMILF Life” is the true story of Ms. Penny Sterling of Rochester, N.Y., and her journey of becoming a trans woman late in life.

She begins in a coffee shop writing on her computer. This is how she spends much of her time as her desk at home has itself transitioned to a makeup table and her cat insists on sitting on her keyboard whenever it is visible. Today, however, she is here awaiting a date.

We are now privy to her story of realizing, at the age of 54, that she was no longer happy living as a man and allowed her to exist as her true self. Some of her friends and family are confused about this, but she valiantly tries to make them understand.

My favorite example is when her male friend points to a lovely woman and says, “When I look at her, I want to have sex with her.” Penny at first echoes the idea, but then realizes that it’s not really true. She then launches into a long, detailed criticism of the woman’s fashion choices, both positive and negative.

She goes online to try dating and gets many short responses, sometimes accompanied by smiley faces, hearts and produce (think eggplants and peaches).

She is very open about the highs and lows of her explorations of being a totally new person. The scariness of putting yourself out in public whether at a bar, online or just in general. Beginning her transition at such and advanced age means that she missed a lot of the learning and growing encompassed in being a woman, still she is persevering.

Her talent as a storyteller and comedian helped keep the evening light and hopeful. I am honestly hoping that the sparseness of her audience was only due to being the late slot on a Thursday evening. She deserves a larger group to speak to, and her voice should indeed be heard.

Do yourself a favor and give this show a shot. Just two performances remain, noon Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20-21, on the cabaret stage of the District Theatre, 627 Mass. Ave.

Let’s go to ‘Bed’

By John Lyle Belden

“Bed Play,” by Shar Steiman, presented by Stagequest Indy, and directed by Ty Stover at the District Theatre, is a unique theatrical experience. But it also resonates with something universal in all of us.

To sum it up, I think of it as a Queer Epic Love Poem. I must give one caveat: mature language and content. There are an amazing number of ways to rhyme “uck” and other provocative words. So, consider it a hard “R” in movie terms. But, as one actor recently posted in social media, to simply say “it’s not for everyone” sells it short and gives an unduly negative impression. There is no nudity, aside from some glimpses of bum, and no sim-sex, as this show is not meant to shock, but to stimulate dialogue.

For 99 percent of romantic media, even in today’s accepting atmosphere, it is all cis-het boy meets cis-het girl. But if you truly feel that “love is love,” then celebrate in this performance when gay meets gay or trans meets trans.

We have four characters, played by Steiman, Lukas Schooler, Meghan Dinah, and Case Jacobus. Their personal relationship journeys go from hook-ups to partnerships. Four paths become two, but the lines cross, and each person has to reassess. At the center of it all is the one constant – the bed. Occupying center stage, it steadfastly supports our lovers as they flirt or fight, or just snuggle in each other’s warmth.

Steiman’s script is crazy amazing, the lyrics blazing, the same as I’m simulating in this stimulating paragraph, getting a laugh from the poets who know it takes real skill to fulfil this mission, done in the tradition of hip-hop and slam, constant rhymes in command, flow like Lin-Manuel Miranda, with uncensored, unfiltered expression, the impressions of confessions of love and sincereness and (actual quote) “the power of Queerness.”

Seriously, the versatile verses are a marvel unto themselves, as intriguing and probing as the relationships, and kept up throughout. At moments it is comparable to Eminem or Miranda, or even Shakespeare’s sonnets, but better to just say it’s Steiman’s brave genius at work. The co-stars give of themselves freely, taking on the words as though they composed them, and portraying honest affection, whether lusty, friendly, or feeling betrayed. The easy, natural manner in which they interact is also a credit to Intimacy Director Claire Wilcher (a local acting legend, recently trained and educated to aid in this manner).

Note the online program lists Ash Addams and Kelsey Van Voorst as alternate cast members.

Unless you really can’t deal with adults getting touchy-feely, accept the challenge of experiencing this unique “Bed Play,” through Sunday (July 8-10) at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis. Get tickets at Indydistricttheatre.org.

‘Hedwig’ heralds Cardinal’s transformation

By Wendy Carson

The on- and Off-Broadway hit musical “Hedwig and The Angry Inch” is a unique experience, even more so now as the final production of Cardinal Stage in Bloomington.

As you enter the theater, you notice that it is in the middle of renovations. Your ushers and the crew are all wearing protective vests and hard hats. The entire place is a miasma of construction, complete with caution tape and even a port-a-potty on stage. However, this sets a perfect scene for the spectacle you are about to behold.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Hedwig is a visionary singer who escaped East Germany by way of marriage to a G.I. But her dark reality ruins the fairy tale, as she endured a botched sex-change operation, becoming essentially genderless. Rather than sink into despair, she recreates herself into a rock goddess while also creating a rock god, Tommy Gnosis. As with every other man in her life, he leaves her; still she rages on, continuing to tell her story no matter what.

The most surprising part of this production is that James Rose is one of the few trans, genderfluid, or non-binary performers to play the title role. While one may consider this a bit of stunt-casting, Rose quickly shows the talent and passion that makes Hedwig resonate with any audience.

While I have seen and enjoyed other stagings of this show, Rose is the first performer I’ve seen who shows the true duality of Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis. As developed by originator John Cameron Mitchell (with songs by Stephen Trask), the two are distinct persons but portrayed by the same actor. In the Cardinal production, directed by queer performer John Jarboe, the revelation of Gnosis is the best presented I’ve ever seen. Rose makes Hedwig’s “other half” their own person, with his own distinct reckoning.

Paige Scott as Yitzhak (Hedwig’s “husband” from the former Yugoslavia) brings the anger requisite to the character but subtly shows us the deep love felt for Hedwig. With the character being relegated to the background for much of the story, her transformation during the finale is so much more joyous to behold.

Hedwig’s backup band, The Angry Inch, are comprised of Dan Kazemi on keyboard, Ben Jackson on guitar, Galen Morris on bass, and Bryce Greene on drums. They are all an integral part of the show, not just as accompanists, but also bringing out the true rock-and-roll performances demanded of them. They all bring such a sense of joy to the musical, keeping the story from becoming unbearably morose. They also work the crowd prior to the show – let them know if you’ve spotted “Phyllis” in the audience.

I did particularly love Christopher Simanton & Johna Sewell’s costume and wig designs. They made brilliant use of ordinary objects found on or near a construction site and transformed them into stunning works of art. I do recommend taking a moment or two after the show ends to fully take in their amazing array of “wigs” throughout the space, created by props master Aubrey Krueger.*

Since this is Cardinal’s final production before merging with Bloomington Playwrights Project and Pigasus Institute to form Constellation Stage & Screen, the renovation and rebuilding theme of both the show and its design are quite appropriate. So, say goodbye to the old and welcome the new with this amazing update of what is quickly becoming a timeless classic.

Performances run through June 26 at Waldron Auditorium, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington, and tickets are pay-what-you-can. Details at cardinalstage.org.

*This last credit was added after initial posting, when it was pointed out Simanton and Sewell mainly made the wigs (and wig-like objects) for people’s heads. Krueger’s designs are static, displayed around the stage set.

IndyFringe: A Dry Rose’ – A Lesbian Love Story or Something Very Similar

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

By Wendy Carson

A frustrated author and her best friend decide to go out for a drink (it’s 80’s night after all) and launch themselves into a journey of seeking love in this era versus the era they grew up in.

Since there are not any “Plain Old Lesbian Bars” anymore (their former “homo away from home”), they end up at Swipe Right, a place for internet dating matches to meet up in person. This leads to a hilarious game about who is with whom and whether they will last past this evening (you’ll be playing this yourselves the next time you’re at a bar, trust me).

Add to this the intrigue of a cute new neighbor in the author’s building as well as their new bartender friend and you’ve got a sweet little story unfolding.

What makes this show really work is the brilliance of the script. The dialogue is sharp, realistic and witty (it’s got great wits).

This show by Missy Koonce (last seen at Diva Fest) is pleasantly funny and uplifting, so pour yourself a glass of rose (I hear it’s making a comeback) and settle in for a whirlwind of romantic comedy. You’ll have to wait for tomorrow (Aug. 29) for a taste, but a good wine ages well.

Search for understanding takes author back to ‘Fun Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Before Alison Bechdel was a “test” — the means the graphic novelist proposed to check a popular work for how it treats women — she was a girl growing up in Pennsylvania in a home with perfect antiques and a perfectionist father who was a teacher and a funeral director, and she had feelings she didn’t understand. Later, when the girl discovered herself, she lost her father. The woman she has become now wants to understand why.

This is the Tony-winning musical “Fun Home,” based on Bechdel’s graphic novel, adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, on stage at Footlite Musicals, directed by Maria Matters.

We meet the mature Alison (Kristin Cutler) looking back at her child self (Sadie Cohen) and her typical-but-unusual family: father Bruce (Tim Spradlin), mother Helen (Emily Gaddy), and brothers Christian (Lincoln Everitt) and John (Evan Cohen). The kids are so used to the funeral home (the “Fun Home” of the title) that they even compose a silly commercial jingle for it.

Only visible to Alison in hindsight, we find that Bruce was having secret gay affairs and Helen was under constant stress maintaining their perfect facade.

Alison goes to college (played by Elly Burke) where some library research and soul-searching lead her to realize she’s a lesbian. Fellow student Joan (Emma Socey) awakens all that that entails. After coming out to her parents, Alison makes a home visit for what turns out to be her final moments with Bruce. Helen has clued her in on his double-life, and she wants to understand better this thing they now have in common. But days later, he walks into the path of a truck — distracted, suicidal, or both?

Cast and crew do an excellent job with this powerful musical, on a set designed by Matters that places the orchestra, led by Ainsley Paton, visibly at the back of the stage. The three Alisons each acquit themselves well. Gaddy wears Helen’s pain like part of her costume. Spradlin effectively keeps Bruce a cypher, neither entirely good nor bad, while enticing us to look closer; Job Willman and Dustin Branum complete the cast as the young men in his life.

A wonderful and touching theatrical experience that is sure to be mentioned when local awards are given, performances run through March 22 at Footlite, 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

FTC: ‘Cake’ a complex confection

By John Lyle Belden

Though every aspect of a thoroughly-planned wedding seems critical, the most important thing is still the people involved.

That is the approach playwright Bekah Brunstetter brought to “The Cake,” now presented by Fonseca Theatre Company, directed by founding staff member Jordan Flores Schwartz. In this “issue play” tackling recent conflicts of homophobia, religious freedom, and free commerce, while a bakery avoiding making a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage is at the center of the story, it is the people and their very human feelings that we explore.

Della (Jean Arnold) appears to have her life in order. Her shop, Della’s Sweets of Winston, N.C., is doing well and she has been selected for the “Big American Bake Off” television show. She is a stickler for following the directions, whether it be with a generations-old recipe or the centuries-old wisdom of the Bible. We meet her speaking on this to a young freelance writer, Macy (Chandra Lynch), who, while working on her next story, has an ulterior motive. This is revealed when Jen (Kyrsten Lyster) arrives. 

Jen grew up in this neighborhood and is friends with Della. She is also Macy’s fiance. After first insisting on making the wedding cake, before finding out it is for “two brides,” Della suddenly remembers how busy she will be around the wedding date and changes her mind. 

At this point you might expect characters to dig in their heels as they take sides, each individually convinced they’re right, and maybe even go to court. But the consequences are more nuanced. 

Della, who has known and loved Jen since babysitting her years ago, almost immediately feels regret over her decision. While her husband, hard-working plumber Tim (Adam O. Crowe), supports her on it, she finds herself haunted by the voice of the Big American Bake Off host George (Dwuan Watson) questioning her motives and methods. Also, she can’t help but notice the true love between Jen and Macy, a feeling she struggles to find between her and her dutiful but distant spouse.

Meanwhile, a rift forms between our engaged couple. Macy, a New Yorker, sees all she feared from the South coming true, and wants to strike back, or at least give up the fancy nuptials for a simple civil ceremony — elsewhere. Jen, on the other hand, is determined to have her dream wedding. It turns out you can take the lesbian out of North Carolina, but you can’t take North Carolina out of the lesbian.

As with all genuine stories, no matter how serious things get, some of it you just have to laugh at. There are plenty of comic moments in this play, especially when Della tries to rekindle her own jaded romance.

Arnold makes Della surprisingly sympathetic, given the spot events have put her in. Though playing a staunch conservative, Crowe gives Tim enough heart that we can see what she saw in him.

Lynch and Lyster make a good couple, as in their roles their yin and yang of protector and nurturer balance each other out. Still, neither woman is all hard or all soft. Is it enough to save the wedding? (And will there be cake?) You’ll just have to see to find out. 

Performances run through March 22 at FTC’s home, the Basile building at 2508 W. Michigan St., west of downtown Indy. Call 317-653-1519 or visit FonsecaTheatre.org.