‘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.

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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.

Go west (of downtown) to see ‘Laramie’

By John Lyle Belden

As I suspect it was for many other straight people, I can look back and see a rough point between “before” and “after.” A friend, coworker or family member turns out to be gay, or even officially comes out, and then others you know. You start to see things from the LGBTQ+ perspective. Then, suddenly, some jokes aren’t funny anymore, certain attitudes are absurd, and you feel embarrassed you used to indulge in any of that. Soon, you think of these individuals as friends, family, regular people — then no longer see them as “them.”

For America, one of those points was in the fall of 1998. Before then, to me. Laramie, Wyoming, was just a town where some of my cousins might still live, where I once visited historic Fort Laramie. To the general public, it was known as the home of the University of Wyoming, if they knew of it at all.

But the kidnapping, beating, torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 changed that.

The story of a 20-year-old gay man essentially crucified and left to die rocked the world, and shook the town to its core. The media frenzy and public assumptions about the people there didn’t help. Playwright Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project of New York went to Laramie in the months that followed. Their work, “The Laramie Project,” is not so much a traditional play as a live documentary. Its nonfiction text is all from writings and recordings at the time, including court proceedings, and the feelings of Laramie residents, those who knew Shepard and the perpetrators, and Tectonic company members. The only agenda of this project was the truth, an honest look at the people involved, the Laramie citizens, and ultimately all of us.

“You must tell your story,” one of the clergy interviewed says.

Now, local company No Holds Bard presents the story at Indy Convergence, just west of downtown, with profits going to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The cast of Abby Gilster, Clay Mabbitt, Denise Jaeckel, Nathan Thomas and Tristan Ross (who also directs) are talents who make a good play entertaining and a great play unforgettable — this one will stay with you for a while. These men and women portray various friends, relatives, witnesses, officials, reporters and regular people, as well as Tectonic members undertaking this delicate mission.

Ross’s range includes portraying Kaufman, the Judge, infamous minister Fred Phelps, and Shepard’s heartbroken father. Thomas not only plays sympathetic persons including the bartender who unknowingly saw the beginnings of the crime, the man who found Shepard on the fence, and a young theatre student finding himself coming out as an Ally; but also unflinching portrayals of the two men who committed the heinous acts.

I often refer to various works, from Shakespeare tragedies to goofy farces, as “must-see” — this time it is not hyperbole, or just me throwing my stage friends a bone. This is a show every American, teenage and older, should see. Ross, whose work I already love, and friends are even more wonderful in sharing this with Indianapolis now, as the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death was just days ago.

Going back to my starting point about changing attitudes, whether any member of cis-hetero America has transitioned to the “after” phase is up to us individually. It has become painfully plain that some are still stuck in the “before” — or even like it there. Thus, the importance of this work, even after two decades.

Tickets are only $15. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday 2:30 p.m. Sunday at 2611 W. Michigan St. Pay onsite, or get tickets here.

IndyFringe: ‘Beneath the Surface’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

When you first see what is going on — kids barely out of middle school coming on stage to present a show they developed about difficult issues they think about and face — I couldn’t help but mentally lower the bar and pray this wasn’t like that bad SNL skit of naive kids presenting awkward “awareness” scenes.

Now I must apologize to them, and ask that you, too, give this show a chance. Beneath the Surface of “Beneath the Surface,” by Sugar Creek Players Youth Troupe, is earnest searching for understanding, and expression of what the world is like when you are 14 or 15, no longer child but not quite adult — you remember, right? What we see is bravery beyond the tamping down of stage fright.

Budding comic Liberty Owens is “Conscious,” the narrator and facilitator of our look into four archetypal characters: Veronica the young activist, Alex the “jerk,” Jasper the poet (who is on the Autism spectrum) and Juana the Mexican immigrant. Drawing conclusions about them yet? Please note the title of the play — yes, these kids have layers.

I ask you cooperate with Conscious — she’s a little silly, and prone to telling groaner-jokes (could you do better at her age?) — but she is only helping us understand our subjects as they strive to understand themselves, and each other. So when she asks which person’s story you want to see continue, speak up and suggest someone; they are all intriguing, and sharply presented with earnest emotion.

Just as the film “Eighth Grade” is now bringing this crucial point in our lives to the national conversation, you get to see something of this in person, developed and performed by local teens. Note some hard issues are addressed, and it doesn’t have an artificially happy end — in fact, as in the real world, struggles continue. But if you came to see a Fringe show, here’s a doggone Fringe show. My troubled teen self of years past salutes them.

Isabella de Assis-Wilson as Juana is joined by Sara Adams (Veronica), Terran McCarty (Alex) and Evan Baldwin (Jasper) for the Tuesday, Aug. 21, performance. Remaining performances feature Sonora Kay (Veronica), Sara Adams (Alex) and Austin Coon (Jasper). All are on the main stage of the District Theatre (formerly Theatre on the Square), 627 Mass Ave.

Get on board ‘Priscilla’ with Footlite Musicals

By John Lyle Belden

To my gay friends reading this, I have just two words to say about “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical” (based on the film “The Adventures of Priscilla…”), at Footlite Musicals through May 20:

FABULOUS! GO!

Need more details? OK. This spectacle is the journey of three Sydney, Australia, drag queens: Tick a/k/a Mitzi (Michael Howard), who wants to connect with the son he barely knows; Bernadette (John Phillips), a widow and aging diva needing to find her next chapter; and Adam a/k/a Felicia (Chris Jones), an impetuous lass in search of fun and adventure.

Tick’s very understanding wife, Marion (Carolyn Lynch), needs an act for her casino in Alice Springs (located in the center of the Australian continent, far from coastal Sydney) and his traveling there would fulfill Tick’s promise to visit his boy, Benji (Rocco Meo). Bernadette provides the showbiz know-how, and Adam provides the transportation – a fabulous RV that is the Priscilla of the title. While the wildlife ignore our trio, the treacherous part of the journey is the human denizens as they travel through Australia’s equivalent of Kentucky (Broken Hill, Woop Woop) and West Virginia (Coober Pedy). Along the way, they do meet one helpful soul, Bob (Dan Flahive), who ends up along for the ride.

Howard presents Tick with charm, charisma and rugged good looks reminiscent of Hugh Jackman. Phillips exudes authority appropriate to a, at turns, regal and maternal personality. Jones goes from carefree to careless and back with aplomb, like the younger sibling you just want to slap sometimes, but love anyway. And Flahive is sweet in his portrayal of what was my favorite character in the film.

Also notable are Sarah Marone as Bob’s mail-order bride Cynthia, of the infamous “ping pong scene,” and Dennis Jones as Sydney diva Miss Understanding.

The story is embellished with more than 20 pop and disco hits from the 1970s and ’80s, including “It’s Raining Men,” “Go West,” “I Will Survive,” and “True Colors.” For those who can’t resist singing along, a special matinee this Saturday (May 12 at 2:30 p.m.) will let you do just that, complete with lyric sheets.

Another spectacular feature of this show is the costumes – the genuine Tony and Oscar-winning outfits sent to Indy from Broadway. The headdresses must be seen to be believed, as well as the visual effect of the big “gumby” pants.

All this, for a story with a little pain, a lot of heart, and a sense of fun as big as the Outback. Footlite is at 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Phoenix premiere: Search for understanding takes musical’s author ‘Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Nothing is what it appears in the Fun Home. Even the name disguises its purpose, being short for Funeral Home – but that doesn’t stop the kids who live there from writing it an upbeat commercial jingle. The house is immaculate, orderly and almost museum-like – an elaborate facade for the psychological chaos in its residents.

One of those kids, Alison Bechdel, grows up to be a popular queer cartoonist. As she reflects back on her unusual childhood and coming of age, she wants to write and draw it all as it really happened – not as she wants to remember it. That struggle plays out in the Tony-winning musical, “Fun Home” (based on her autobiographical graphic novel), making its Indiana premiere at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

We meet today’s Alison (Cynthia Collins), young Alison (Amelia Wray) and, later, Alison in college (Ivy Moody).

The girl longs for attention from, and the teen connection to, her father, Bruce (Eric J. Olson), while helping mother, Helen (Emily Ristine), and brothers, John and Christian (Jacob McVay and Aiden Shurr), keep their home orderly. She finds herself having feelings she’s not sure others understand – she hates wearing dresses, she sees beauty in a muscular woman in short hair and a plaid shirt – unaware that in his own way, Dad understands.

How well he knew, and his true thoughts and feelings, Alison will never know.

In college, the young woman realizes what now seems obvious; she is a lesbian. She researches in books about sexuality, then learns hands-on from Joan (Teneh B.C. Karimu). After coming out to her parents, she gets their truth in return. And within weeks, her father is dead.

Our trio of Alisons excellently bring the story to life, especially charming Wray. Olson has a knack for making every role seem like it was written for him – this is no exception. Ristine perfectly portrays the longsuffering wife and mother, able to show so much in just an expression; her song, when Helen feels free to let her true feelings show, is the kind of moment that awards are given for.

Karimu presents the steadying influence of a good friend. And Brandon Alstott completes the cast as different characters, including Roy – a man who’s like an uncle to the kids, and much more to Bruce.

It’s easy to ride along on this emotional journey, because Alison isn’t the hero of her story (and neither can her father be, no matter how much she wishes it), she just wants to understand what makes her feel so different from the rest of the world. She’s still the girl who wants her Dad to lift her up, and through her search lifts him to examine the facets she can’t see clearly, no matter how hard she tries. She sees in her parents so many opportunities lost and abandoned, wondering what that bodes for her.

For all who feel different – maybe “queer” in either the traditional or LGBTQ sense – this show (presented in a single movie-length act) is highly recommended. Is it “fun”? Hard to say, but it can certainly feel like home.

This musical opens the final season at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) before the Phoenix moves to its new downtown location. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 22. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

ATI’s truly beautiful ‘Bird’

By John Lyle Belden

La Cage - Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Tim Hunt, Kenny Shepard and Don Farrell - photo credit - Zach Rosing
From left, Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Don Farrell (as ZaZa), Kenny Shepherd and Tim Hunt on the stage of “La Cage aux Folles,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana at Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 1. (Zach Rosing photo)

Hours after seeing the musical “La Cage aux Folles” (literally “The Birdcage,” its original film was also popularly mistranslated “Birds of a Feather”) presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through Oct. 1, Wendy and I discussed whether this was truly a perfect performance.

Of course, anything can and does happen in live theatre, but without going into pointless nitpicking (issues only we noticed or that evaporate between weekends), this production can only be described as flawless – like the faux female stars of the nightclub of the show’s title, a hotspot on the French Riviera in the late 1970s.

Bill Book and Don Farrell are wonderful as the couple who own, run and live above La Cage, its emcee Georges and star diva (the Great ZaZa) Albin, respectively. Book is in top form, and Farrell is definitely the leading lady. Good thing, too – as the role of saucy butler/maid Jacob has “scene-stealer” written all over it, and Daniel Klingler plays it to the limit, with uproarious results.

Our happy couple is thrown into turmoil when their son, Jean-Michel (Sean Haynes) comes home engaged to – a woman! – Anne (Devan Mathias), the daughter of anti-gay government minister Mr. Dindon (Ken Klingenmeier). To make matters worse, Dindon and his wife (Mary Jane Waddell) would be arriving with Anne for dinner at their house the next day. The young man’s plan is for Georges to “straighten” up and for Albin to stay out of sight – but, of course, nothing ever goes as planned.

Again, great performances by handsome Haynes (Wendy said she could get lost in his eyes) and bubbly Mathias. Klingenmeier is appropriately stiff, and Waddell so nice as the wife who secretly yearns to cut loose; the couple also smoothly play the proprietors of a local cafe.

Speaking of supporting roles, the versatile John Vessels has fun here, especially as stage manager Francis. And then there are the beautiful Les Cagelles: singing, dancing “illusions” played by Greg Grimes, Michael Humphrey, Tim Hunt and Kenny Shepard. Chez magnifique!

Judy Fitzgerald completes the cast, shining as fun-loving restaurateur and welcome friend Jacqueline.

La Cage aux Folles” was first a French play in 1973, then a film in 1978, and brought to Broadway (adapted by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman) in the early ’80s. You’d think that after 40 years, a story like this would feel quaint and dated; alas, it’s as relevant as ever. This production, directed by Larry Raben with choreography by Carol Worcel, lets the weight of its subtext float on an atmosphere of fun. Scene changes are swirling dance routines, a laugh is never far from the tear, and the arch-conservative does get his well-deserved comeuppance. The songs include timeless anthems “I Am What I Am” and “The Best of Times (is Now),” each as defiant in their own way as they are memorable – and wonderfully executed here.

It’s a good time to go “bird” watching: Performances are at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets at thecenterpresents.org. Find info on this and other ATI shows at atistage.org or facebook.com/ActorsTheatreOfIndiana.