Being in ‘Error’ feels just right

By John Lyle Belden

It’s fascinating to see Clerical Error Productions expand its offerings beyond an annual parody of a popular offbeat British sitcom. Case in point: company Creative Consultant and Vaudeville Coordinator James Benn just brought to the District Theatre cabaret stage, “In the Life: Songs of Gay Harlem.”

Accompanied by longtime local pianist Carl Hines, Benn introduces himself as Dr. Tyrell Leviticus Worthington, our instructor in American History – to be more precise, American Black LGBTQ History.

Moments later he is settled on his seat by the piano, enlightening us about “The Life” (code for LGBTQ culture at the time) in 1920s and ‘30s Harlem neighborhoods of New York. As we quickly discover, many of the jazz, blues and early pop icons are also Gay Icons, some surprisingly out and proud. The names include Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Clara Smith, Billy Strayhorn, Ethel Waters, and the legendary Ma Rainey. With his warm earnest delivery, and the perfect beat popping out of his fingers, Benn puts the “easy” in speakeasy, entertaining in a way so everyone in the packed room feels his personal touch.

Also, you come away knowing a bit more than you did going in. An evening with these classics could have you itching to find the records yourself – provided you’ve got something that plays 78s.

Keep an eye and ear out for his next show – follow “James Solomon Benn” on Facebook and LinkedIn – and check out ClericalErrorProductions.com for upcoming productions, including the Beckett play “Happy Days” with CEP founder Kate Duffy, Feb. 23-26 at the District Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

Phoenix ‘Fudge’ sweet and salty

By John Lyle Belden

2020 seemed to ruin everything, and in “The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge” at the Phoenix Theatre, it’s messing with Christmas as well.

Carol (Milicent Wright) lives for the Yuletide, and her holiday Holly Fudge (named after her daughter, as well as its festive décor) has been the Number One Blue Ribbon winner in town for eight years. Friend and neighbor Chris (Emily Ristine), a fitness trainer who now Zumba’s over Zoom, has taken an interest during the year’s shutdown in making confections herself. They look forward to Holly (Terra Mcfarland) coming home from Seattle for the holiday, and learn she is bringing her new love interest, Jordan (Jaddy Ciucci).

This play by Trista Baldwin is not just a new twist on a holiday story, but on the “coming out” play as well, as, while Carol is accepting of Holly choosing to go from a past with boyfriends to living with a woman, it throws the Gen-X mom that rather than tagging herself a lesbian, Holly opts for “queer.” As events progress, the LGBTQ issue becomes trivial as more typical intergenerational strife comes to the fore.

Carol just wishes things could be as they were, for at least one more Christmas – the fact that the noise on the street outside isn’t carolers but Black Lives Matter protesters doesn’t help.

This sophisticated comedy, in a style much like cable shows or situations in “Modern Family,” brings a lot of laughs even as tensions build to the breaking point – which occurs in a fitting, hilariously dramatic (dramatically hilarious?) fashion. Director Daniella Wheelock said this play resonates with her, especially when going from her home in Chicago to relatives in Connecticut. Mcfarland and Ciucci both commented after opening night that it reflected their own memories of holiday homecomings and letting folks know their true selves.

Mcfarland makes an impressive debut in her first professional-level role. She admitted there was some pressure in having not only a lead but also the title character, but noted she learned a lot working with theatrical veterans, especially Wright. On stage, any nerves were channeled through her apprehensive character, a woman finding herself judged against the girl her mother wanted her to be, wanting to be seen for the person she is becoming and respected for her work as a journalist.

Ciucci and Ristine both nimbly play characters who mean well yet happen to say or do the right thing to make it feel wrong for Carol. As for Wright, typically playing the rock of an ensemble, this time she masterfully portrays a soul adrift, working to get her bearings on something familiar in a very unusual time.

Everyone join in: “Fa-la-la-la-la, No Justice, No Peace!” Performances run through Dec. 23 at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Pain of decades-old loss lingers in McNally play

By John Lyle Belden

We are often reminded to “Never Forget” a devastating event or era, but those who went through it often can’t stop remembering. Every day, any little thing can bring up a memory of someone who was lost.

“Mothers and Sons” by Terrance McNally, presented by Main Street Productions in Westfield, has a cast of four actors, but there are five characters. Not present but very much felt is Andre, who died 20 years earlier during the AIDS epidemic. We are in the New York apartment, with a view of Central Park as lights come on during the longest night of the year, of Cal (Austin Uebelhor), who had been Andre’s partner and caregiver in his final days. To his mild surprise, he is visited by Andre’s mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Ruddell). Recently widowed, she arrived from Dallas (where Andre grew up) with plans to fly to Europe. Cal shares his home with husband Will (Nicholas Heskett) and their young son, Bud (Tyler Acquaviva).

We come to learn a lot about Cal, Will, Katherine, and Andre. Will chafes at the thought of competing with a ghost. Katherine still harbors resentments and denial – “Andre wasn’t gay when he went to New York.” Cal tries to keep the pain of the past in perspective even as it rises up to overwhelm him again.

“Who’s Andre?” Little Bud is chock full of questions, lots of questions.

This heartfelt play is a comedy, with lots of chuckles throughout, but there is pain that must be dealt with. Grief has no time limit or expiration; before the evening is done, so that Bud and his family can trim the Christmas tree, each adult will have their say.

Ruddell makes Katherine hard to love, but easy to understand. Heskett presents as a superficial millennial, but he emerges Will’s own sense of maturity. Acquaviva delivers the right level of charm. Uebelhor is superb as the man who has had to be a rock for so long, the cracks are undeniable.

Jim LaMonte directs, happy to present this play that he hopes “will broaden [people’s] definition of family.” For those of us who remember the 1980s and ‘90s, this show is also a loving tribute to the struggles so many endured – those who became names on a quilt, and those left behind to stitch them on.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 17-20, at Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get info and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

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.