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.

The King turns Queen in Phoenix’s ‘Georgia McBride’

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre opens its 2019-20 season with the fabulous Off-Broadway comedy, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” by Matthew Lopez.

Set in the Florida Panhandle, just as Casey (Sam C. Jones), a budding Elvis impersonator with a bit of high school musical experience, is finally getting his act to work, Cleo’s Bar on Panama City Beach decides to change its entertainment. Desperate for a bigger (or any) audience, bar manager Eddie (Ty Stover) takes a chance on his cousin, drag queen Miss Tracy Mills (John Vessels).

Casey is in a bind, as his wife Jo (Bridgette Ludlow) is pregnant, so he stays on as bartender. Then, when Miss Tracy’s fellow entertainer, Anna-Rexia Nervosa (Jonathan Studdard), can’t go on, Casey is pressed into service in dress, wig and makeup, and Georgia McBride is born!

Once our hopelessly hetero hero accepts his new persona, “her” popularity rises on the beach-bar scene, but Casey can’t bring himself to tell Jo what he’s been doing. It’s easy to see that a reckoning is coming for Florida’s newest Queen.

This play is loaded with both humor – in side-splitting comic moments – and heart. In Jones and Ludlow’s performance, you can tell Casey and Jo truly love each other, though he tests her patience with his immaturity, and she his with her bouts of pessimism.

Vessels is amazing, whether playing the confident woman backstage or the hilarious performer in the spotlight. Studdard is excellent in double-duty as Rexy, who informs Casey that the drag life is more than just a lip-synching gig; and as Casey and Jo’s landlord and friend, Jason – his double-take when he find’s out about Casey doing drag is priceless. Stover as Eddie is in his element, as he plays a thin-tempered but lovable Falstaff with bills to pay.

The drag scenes are played to the Phoenix audience as the bar’s audience, so cast members informed us after opening night that people sitting up front could tip them like in a regular drag show. Those scenes include clever musical mash-ups, and wonderful costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck. Suzanne Fleenor directs.

The “Legend” continues through Oct. 6 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

IndyFringe: It Gets Bitter, The Ron Popp Story

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Ron Popp is a Native Hoosier, and he says that you can tell by his accent, that he’s gay. Growing up in the small southern town of Fairland, Indiana, and attending the University of Indianapoli,s he has many fond memories of the state and its people. Still, it’s been 15 years since he’s spent time in our city and he has noticed the many changes in that period alone.

Popp deftly guides us through stories of his childhood, dating life, gay marriage (he still uses the term just because it still irks some people) and love of the theater. Between his homey insights, sharp tongue and witty cynicism, he manages to keep the audience laughing. Plus, his show has something for every walk of life.

I find it hard to give you a more detailed review without directly quoting his jokes and I know I could not do them the justice they deserve. What surprises me most is that this is his first Fringe Festival. So let me say this, let’s all give him a warm Hoosier welcome and pack the house each show for a night of laughs. Also, this guy’s going to be a major headliner soon, so you’re not likely to get this opportunity to see him in this sort of an intimate setting, at this price, again.

With performances Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday (Aug. 20-21 & 24) at ComedySportz (721 Mass. Ave.), the show also makes a great palate-cleanser to help you even out your psyche after partaking of some of the more somber offerings at the Fringe.

IndyFringe: Adventures While Black in Great Britain

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Les Kurkendaal-Barrett and husband John are at their Green Card “audition.” Les is asked: Is his marriage to this “obnoxious Brit” for real? Being a teller of autobiographical stories for Fringe shows, he gives the Immigration officer — and us — the whole scoop.

Those who have been to his past shows may remember his former relationship. Les comes clean about how toxic that situation was, and how despite efforts to the contrary he fell into yet another romance with a white man. But at least this family of in-laws will be normal — right?

A trip to England for John’s father’s funeral brings Les into contact with his new relatives. This includes Cousin Nigel of the multiple grandfather clocks and wild mood swings; and blunt-spoken Aunt Enid, who lives in Stratford. “You know about Shakespeare, right?” We also learn about “tea shaming,” what song helps you when driving in the U.K., and that Brighton is the nation’s Gay Capital.

Les just has that way about him that makes you want to be his friend, and a storytelling style that makes any little thing that happens sound wild and fascinating. There were plenty of seats at the first IndyFringe performance, but they will be a lot harder to come by at his last. Find him 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday at ComedySportz, 721 Mass. Ave. 

‘Yank!’ — A different kind of bravery

By John Lyle Belden

Emotions run high during war — excitement, anger, patriotic fervor, devotion, and love. For some soldiers thrown into the crucible that was World War II, the ones they wanted to embrace with all their might weren’t the pin-up girls.

This is the world of “Yank!” the musical making its Indianapolis premiere at the District Theatre.

Stuart (Jonathan Krouse) answered the call to join the fight against Hitler and Tojo, but first he has to fit in with Charlie Company. He can barely hold a rifle, and he’s not sure about his feelings towards his fellow soldiers, especially Mitch (Tanner Brunson), the only one to treat him with kindness. The others suspect he’s different, and even call him “Light-Loafers,” but they come to accept him, because “your squad is your squad.”

On the way to the front, two things happen: Stuart and Mitch start to explore their feelings for each other, and Stuart meets Artie (D. Scott Robinson), a photographer for Yank! magazine, wise to and willing part of the gay underground just outside the U.S. Army’s notice. While Charlie Company goes to combat, Stuart — an aspiring writer, keeping a detailed journal — joins Artie as reporters behind the lines.

Stu is doing well out of harm’s way, but he still has feelings for Mitch. Then he gets the assignment to write about his old unit, and how war has changed them. More changes are coming for Stu, and he will discover how war is especially hell for a gay soldier — facing danger from his own people as well as the enemy.

The cast includes Isaac Becker, Dominic Piedmonte, Scott Fleshood, Joshua Cox and Bryant Mehay as fellow soldiers. Jerry Beasley, Lance Gray and Kevin Bell play hardened officers and NCOs, as well as somewhat softer characters. Jessica Hawkins wonderfully portrays “every woman,” from radio entertainers to a lesbian WAC working for Gen. MacArthur.  

Krouse and Brunson turn in wonderful performances, one constantly feeling deeply, the other deeply conflicted. The supporting cast is solid; Beasley earns his stripes. And with us usually seeing Robinson these days behind the scenes as producer or director, it’s good to see him show his excellence as an actor.

This is a different kind of love story, but still touching — love is love, after all — and an eye-opening look at a hidden part of our history. While the characters are fictional, there was a Yank! Magazine, and playwright David Zellnik thoroughly researched the secret lives of gay soldiers and sailors of the era.

The songs, by David and his brother Joseph Zellnik, are snappy and sentimental in a style befitting the 1940s setting, including some interesting harmony.

Had this been a boy-meets-girl rather than boy-meets-boy, “Yank!” would look like the cinema hit of 1945. But it’s 2019, and LGBTQ GIs are only now living out of the closet. Thus, this show is equal parts entertaining and important. Director Tim Spradlin deserves praise for bringing this gem to downtown Indy, as well as IndyFringe for hosting it at the District (former site of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave.

This production runs through March 24; get info and tickets at indyfringe.org.

Bring on BOLT, with a ‘sad story’ worthy of the telling

By John Lyle Belden

A new Indianapolis theatre company, Be Out Loud Theatre (BOLT), comes “out” in a big way with the Tennessee Williams rarity “And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens.” For one of Williams’ short dramas, this “play in two scenes” is a rich, satisfying gumbo of New Orleans sass and sadness.

As confessed “transvestite” Candy Delaney (Lance Gray) approaches her 35th birthday, she brings home Karl (Chris Saunders), a brooding, conflicted man, in the hopes of making him as close to a husband as she can hope for. The French Quarter provides some shelter to local gays – as does Candy, a landlord of three properties: “Queens make the best tenants,” she purrs – but this is still around 1960 and being “queer” can be dangerous. Candy’s dreams of normalcy are marred by the catty upstairs renters, Alvin (Joe Barsanti) and Jerry (Christian Condra).

Given the title (and that I was unfamiliar with the script), I couldn’t help bracing myself for a fatal moment. But actually the plot is more about the life of queens in that time and place. In Tennessee Williams fashion, the story is so much about wanting not only what one doesn’t have, but what might not be possible. Gray commands the stage as Candy spins her dreams, her plans, somehow believing she can will them to be. Saunders projects danger, even just standing still; he wants things – money, affection, to be comfortable with himself – but the stigma of the queer keeps them just out of reach of his clenched fists.

BOLT founder and director Michael Swinford makes a bold statement with his premiere production. He said he wanted to start with an LGBTQ-focused play that predates Stonewall and the AIDS generation. For a stark reminder of how life used to be – even in carefree New Orleans – this was an excellent story to tell.

“And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens” plays through Jan. 20 on the cabaret second stage at The District Theatre (former home of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave., now managed by IndyFringe. For info and tickets, visit http://www.indyfringe.org.