Bard Fest: The essential ‘R&J’

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.bardfestindy.com.

By John Lyle Belden

In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the one line that stands out for me is near the end: “All are punished.” And as the opening narration famously indicates, the purpose of this tragic play is to show how all involved came to that end.

In the Catalyst Repertory production at Bard Fest, director Zach Stonerock has in his adaptation stripped it to its essence. No elaborate sets; costumes are simple black and white apparel; there are few props, or even weapons beyond a simple knife. The setting is “fair Verona,” but not fixed to any place or era. The focus is solely on the characters, their quirks and quarrels (especially the ongoing Montague-Capulet feud).

The famous “balcony scene,” for instance, is presented in two spotlights, like independent soliloquies. We are reminded that Juliet thinks she is alone, that in longingly asking “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” she doesn’t expect an answer. But when he comes to her, we are so focused on their words and feelings that we hardly notice there was no balcony.

The play’s opening speech, by the way, is delivered by a Chorus who is a blind man – done with subtle brilliance by Tristan Ross. In this way he reminds me of blind Justice, who oversees these foolish men and women coming to their inevitable end.

Elijah Robinson is our impulsive, melancholy Romeo. He is too ruled by his emotions, but this is seen as wonderful to young Juliet, sweetly delivered by Kayla Lee. Her life is strictly ruled by others, but in this boy she sees hope of liberty, away from the constraints of their family names. Thus, despite her showing the dawning of wisdom, the young teen becomes a cult of one to her foolish husband-to-be.

Critical supporting roles are in excellent hands with Kelsey Leigh Miller as Friar Laurence, who tries in vain to make love triumphant; and Beverly Roche as Juliet’s Nurse, a far better maternal figure than her actual mom (Lisa Marie Smith).

Justin Klein is Paris, the young man from out of town caught in the middle of Verona’s passions. Klein is right at home in the Bard’s worlds, but should try to avoid pointy objects.

And to lighten the mood (making the darkness more contrasting) we get excellent comic relief from Audrey Stonerock as the put-upon Capulet servant Peter; and the awesome Kelsey VanVoorst as brash, boastful Mercutio, Romeo’s best bud. (Note to parents: Shakespeare included bawdy innuendo to entertain his audiences; you’ll get quite a bit here.)

With the right editing, “less is more” fully applies – especially here, as Stonerock delivers a fresh perspective on well-known material. The end is the same, thus we understand that “Romeo and Juliet” is not a love story, but a “tale of woe.” Woe to those who miss it.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

Hilarious glimpse into the dark and ditzy side of Hollywood

By John Lyle Belden

Playwright Neil Labute’s talent for showing how nasty allegedly civilized people can be to each other is on hilarious display in his comedy, “The Money Shot,” at Theatre on the Square through March 4.

It’s a pleasant evening in the Hollywood Hills when two movie stars meet at one’s home to discuss with their significant others the imminent filming of a love scene. Aging action hero Steve (Earl Campbell) is star and executive producer of the movie being made; friend and Oscar-nominated actress Karen (Sarah McGee) is the love interest. Steve is married to 20-something aspiring actress Missy (Lauren Hall) while Karen’s spouse is Bev (Lisa Marie Smith), an assistant editor on other major films.

As they converse, we get to know this foursome: Steve is a callous ass who can be aggressively ignorant, then skillfully switch the subject when corrected. Karen is a sort of Hollywood holier-than-thou devoted to numerous causes and opportunities to brand herself. Missy is a living embodiment of the stereotypical ditz. Bev is well-educated and easily the smartest person in the room, but gets combative the moment something stupid or insensitive is said – therefore spending the entire 90 minutes of this play in an emotional minefield.

After numerous arguments – generating everything from but-gusting hilarity to jaw-dropping did-he-just-say-that moments – the movie stars get to the topic at hand: The director wants their love scene to not just be steamy, but to also contain actual sex acts. The spouses are asked to agree, or at least veto specific bodily maneuvers. This results in the most bizarre list ever made, as well as a high-stakes wrestling match (yes, actual, by-the-rules wrestling).

If this sounds like something that must be seen to be believed, I heartily agree. See it (but don’t bring the kids; there’s no nudity but plenty of blue and descriptive language)!

Campbell does an incredible job of playing an incredible jerk. McGee swings from inspiring to smug to vulnerable with ease. Their Steve and Karen are easily comparable to various real-world stars, adding to the fun of seeing these portrayals.

Hall gives glimpses of Missy not quite being as dumb as she looks, especially at the film’s climax (pun intended) when she truly perceives these characters’ power dynamic. And Smith, aided by a bold hairstyle choice, disappears into her character, delivering an awesome performance that I don’t want to elaborate too much on, lest I accidentally offend and get beaten up by Bev.

Directed by TOTS boss Lori Raffel, this show on the cozy confines of the Second Stage could easily sell out, so call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org. TOTS is at 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indy.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: Adults from adult films, adulting

By John Lyle Belden

Let’s clear up one thing right away: There is no sex, simulated or otherwise, in the play “Porno Stars at Home,” on the second stage at Theatre on the Square through April 23. Nor is there nudity (which seems odd, considering TOTS’s brave history). Believe it or not, there is more sex in the shows which both precede and follow it on the theatre’s schedule.

What you get, in Leonard Melfi’s famous 1970s drama, are five people portraying five real, fragile women and men who happen to have jobs engaging in sex acts for adult films.

“My birthday party will not be a disaster,” declares Georgia Lloyd Bernhardt (played by Lisa Marie Smith) as guests start to arrive at her tidy New York apartment. She desperately wants and needs to believe that statement is true, as she faces the stress of turning 35 in an industry that demands youth, as well as a secret she will eventually reveal to her friends. Her quest for a clean space away from her “work” is reflected in her spartan furnishings and desire that all keep even their language clean (a hopeless quest).

First to arrive is her peer, Barry Olivier (Todd Kenworthy). Later we meet hyper Norma Jean Brando (Frankie Bolda), hunky Montgomery McQueen (Jay Hemphill) and beautiful Uta Bergman-Hayes (Miranda Nehrig).

Norma Jean, a confessed nymphomaniac, has a surprise of her own: The last man she casually had sex with is allegedly a playwright and would not only write a part for her, but a play for all five of this group, telling about their lives. (Who knew “going meta” was a thing in the ’70s?) The anticipation of a visit by this man, and the hope it gives to these actors longing for “legitimate” roles, is a touchstone for the drama that follows.

As one might guess, this quintet aren’t happy with a life of boinking on film. Montgomery confesses he hates working in all-male films, despite his ample “talent” tenting his slacks. Meanwhile, Uta says she is tired of sex in all forms and wishes to find a more real and less physical form of intimacy – her attitude is reflected in her wardrobe, sharply dressed in a pantsuit that covers her to her neck and wrists, topped off on her entry with a concealing hat. Barry apparently has compartmentalized his feelings for women from the sex of his job, but seems conflicted on which applies in his relationship with Georgia, one of his more popular co-stars.

I won’t spoil much by saying that Georgia’s little party is indeed a “disaster” – a beautiful, entertaining wreck that tests and humanizes these characters who found themselves in lives of equal parts fame and shame. Considering that thousands of men and women are involved in the adult film industry to this day (a much bigger, wilder world thanks to the internet), this look at the “scene” 40 years ago has striking relevance – only the rotary phone (and no individual mobiles) betrays the era, since retro décor and disco fashion could become in vogue at any time. Kudos to this quintet, and director Bill Wilkison, for bringing these hurting souls to life – and I can’t help but hope those alter egos made it away from their “day job” to answer an audition notice by an enigmatic off-Broadway playwright by the name of Melfi…

Needless to say, “Porno Stars at Home” is for mature audiences. Find TOTS at 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis. Call 317-685-8687 or visit0 tots.org.

(Review also published at The Word.)

After TOTS triumph, Asaykwee continues dark path

By John Lyle Belden

If you missed the recent run of the Tracy Letts drama “Killer Joe” at Theatre on the Square, it’s understandable. Sellouts were common, even with an additional performance added.

Still, you would have missed one heck of a show. The raw impact of the story of a redneck Texas family hiring a hitman to kill one of its members, with the titular character agreeing to take the young woman of the family as a “security deposit,” was enforced by a top-shelf cast – including local stage veterans Dan Scharbrough, Nate Walden, Lisa Marie Smith and Jaddy Ciucci.

But the most triumphant performance was by Ben Asaykwee as Joe. For those who only know his work with darkly comic characters – like the many he developed as founder of Q Artistry and shows like “Cabaret Poe” – his chilling transformation into the no-nonsense Texas hitman bordered on shocking. With surprisingly little effort, he projected menace and put us all on notice that his true range and depth is much greater than many ever suspected.

This weekend, TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis, opened the classic Stephen Sondheim musical, “Passion,” playing weekends through March 26. (See www.tots.org.)

Meanwhile, Asaykwee has left downtown and set his sights on entertaining us with the story of an actual killer.

Apparently unafraid of ghosts – working as he has for the past several years in former Masonic Lodge 666 in the haunted neighborhood of Irvington – Asaykwee, with megatalent Claire Wilcher, present “White City Murder,” a new musical based on the exploits of America’s first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes, performed just blocks away from where Holmes briefly lived and is believed to have killed at least one child, who is said to still haunt the home.

The musical runs March 18-20, March 26 and March 31-April 2 at the lodge, 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. It’s plot concerns the “murder hotel” where dozens of young women disappeared during the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair. The events are recounted in the book “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson, which tells of Holmes’ many murders to collect on victims’ insurance and the building he had constructed to make the process of killing and disposal more efficient.

If anyone can set such a macabre topic to music in an entertaining fashion, it’s Asaykwee – who has already succeeded with the works of Edgar Alan Poe and writing an opera about the tragic Donner Party. And if anyone can help make such an odd show work, it’s Wilcher, who just helped co-write “Babes in Toyland,” is a comic legend with 3-Dollar Bill and ComedySportz, and gave brilliant performances in musicals including “Cabaret” and “Man of LaMancha.”

Find ticket information at www.qartistry.org, or follow “Qartistry” on Facebook.

(This story also posted on The Word.)

Review: Corny cornchip mystery by CRP

By John Lyle Belden

Years ago, I worked on a production line of a manufacturer of tortilla products. Though not too bad if you don’t mind smelling like a corn chip after work, the shifts were as long and monotonous as you’d imagine. And I guess that for those working in the executive offices, things were about as dull.

Until they’re not.

Casey Ross’ “Tortillo” imagines such a scenario, in which a corporate drone at a corn chip company could use some excitement in his life – and with a mysterious phone call, he gets it in spades.

Dave (Robert Webster Jr.) could care less about the new ranch flavor of Tortillo stacked chips (like if Pringles made Doritos) but would rather pine for hot co-worker Juniper (Lisa Marie Smith). Steve (Matt Anderson) is all to eager to help Dave score, giving him an excuse to offload all his work on shy but faithful intern Patrick (Davey Pelsue). But during an evening of watching Steve’s 15 seconds of fame on TV, he and Dave get a call from a malevolent voice, telling them to “mind your own masa.”

Naturally, they freak out over the vague threat, but not enough to do anything. The next day, after overeager employee-of-the-month Ted (Tristan Ross) drops off a sample of the new-flavored chips, they make a discovery that will make you think twice before popping open your next can of Tortillos.

What ensues is a bizarre mystery of corruption and revenge with odd and shady characters – and just who is that “John” guy (Brian Kennedy) anyway? He looks familiar – all flavored with dark hilarity like only Casey Ross’ pen can deliver.

Under the expert direction of Tristan Ross (no relation to Casey) this madness flows excellently through two acts. This was originally a 50-minute Fringe show, and hits the same plot beats, but the two Rosses have ensured that it doesn’t feel “padded out.”

The fun and snacks end Sunday at the IndyFringe building’s Indy Eleven stage. See IndyFringe.org or the Casey Ross Productions website or Facebook page for details and tickets.