Catalyst’s ‘ArcadeFire’ strikes Irvington

By John Lyle Belden

Readers might recall that I reviewed the Catalyst Repertory musical “ArcadeFire! The Redemption of Billy Mitchell” when it was part of the IndyFringe festival last August. Now a full two-act show has returned to the stage, produced in collaboration with Carmel Theatre Company, playing at the Irvington Lodge in Indy’s Eastside.

For those new to this, the title is not a reference to a band, but to actual “arcades” that used to take our lives one quarter at a time back in the 1980s. Playwright and Catalyst founder Casey Ross recently became interested in the story of Mitchell, who was a master of various video games, most notably Donkey Kong (the original low-res game with “Jumpman” [later named Mario] making his way up ramps and ladders while a giant ape throws barrels down at him, in a quest to rescue the damsel that Kong kidnapped). Mitchell had the official all-time high score and was known as “King of Kong” until a documentary by that name came out not long ago, accusing him of cheating. The internet pounced, as it likes to do, and records were officially stripped.

Ross wrote a musical play, with songs by Christopher McNeely and D. Bane, portraying Mitchell as an egotistical, yet basically decent guy who seeks to restore his reputation by challenging his competitors – especially DK-obsessed middle-school teacher Steve Wiebe – to a “Kong Off” to determine the true King. But one has to be careful when writing about actual people, so Ross made contact with Mitchell (this is even referenced briefly in the play) to beg him not to sue or block her from producing the show. On the contrary, Mitchell jumped in as a producer, making personal appearances and providing his signature hot sauce (which is delicious, by the way) with show labels at the Fringe performances.

Life has imitated the art imitating life. Mitchell and Ross work together to aid his “redemption” through this musical, as well as events at video game establishments featuring past star arcade players. Thus, when Billy steps up to a console in Indianapolis that he had never seen before and racks up a literal million points, it’s harder to believe the haters who say he cheated. While performances of “ArcadeFire!” are playing in the upper chambers of the Irvington Lodge, recently opened video venue Level Up Lounge hosts gaming on the first floor. Other sponsors include One Up Arcade Bar in Broad Ripple, Video Game Palooza in Westfield, Comics Cubed of Kokomo, and Team Scorechasers.

In all, this is an awesome spectacle, especially for Gen-X geeks like myself who spent a fair amount of time on arcade joysticks back in the day. But when we get to the show itself, the concept is much better than the execution. Even accounting for only seeing a very rough dress rehearsal, it appears the added material magnifies the musical’s flaws as well as its assets.

Fortunately, the main cast do make this somewhat work. Luke McConnell returns as a dead ringer for Mitchell (though Billy admits Luke is the better singer), calmly portraying all the unflagging confidence of a man who wears an American flag tie like a superhero’s shield. Anthony Nathan is at his perfectly-campy best reprising Mitchell’s “nemesis” Wiebe – his scenes are by far the most fun to watch. Kayla Lee also returns as longsuffering wife Nicole Wiebe (she also plays “Dave,” the podcaster that airs Mitchell’s “Kong Off” challenge); she convincingly gives the “I don’t know why, but I love him” look, several times. New to the cast are Andy Sturm ably taking the role of Brian “Killscreen” Kuh, Mitchell’s coach and “professional number two;” and Craig Kemp solidly embodies arcade manager and competition judge Walter Day.

A more functional backstage screen is up this time – and yes, all the video game consoles you see are genuine. Hopefully the show’s flow will be tightened up with each performance, as well as the dance steps.

Script-wise, Ross has written much better. For instance, we get little insight into why all the red, white and blue, aside from a reference to a Canadian player dissing Mitchell – also, I theorize using USA as your three-letter high-score ID (initials were all those machines’ memory could handle back then) looks a lot better than BM. But with an opportunity for more detailed background in a full-length play, we get precious little more than we had in the 45-minute Fringe edition. Fortunately, Ross’s skills at crafting conversation make what is revealed sound natural.

This is a fun show, especially if you keep your expectations low and go with the cheesiness of it, as well as its stranger-than-fiction real-world aspects. And pick up some sauce!

One weekend of performances remain, Feb. 15-17, at the Irvington Lodge, 5515 East Washington St., Indianapolis. Get info and ticket link on Catalyst’s Facebook page (fb.com/CatalystRepertory).

IndyFringe: ‘Arcade Fire! The Redemption of Billy Mitchell’

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

(*With bonus hot sauce review!)

To be clear, this is not about Arcade Fire, the band, but about redemption, and a proud man who doesn’t want to be known just for awesome hot sauce (see below) but also for being the King of Kong, able to best any game in the arcade.

Quirky playwright and Fringe regular Casey Ross got the idea not long ago to take the story of Billy Mitchell, whose record high score on Donkey Kong was unquestioned until a popular documentary alleged that he somehow cheated, and make it into a musical. This brought out Billy himself — not to stop her, but to give his hearty trademark thumbs-up. If you come to the show today (Sunday, Aug. 19), he will be there in the audience and available for your admiration after.

The musical, written by Ross with clever rousing songs by Christopher McNeely, is based on true events and people, including the frustrated middle-school teacher who challenged Mitchell’s record. Our Billy is selling his sauce at his pizza joint in Florida, when he discovers that the Internet is dissing him. He fights fire with fire by going on a podcast and challenging his detractors to a Kong-Off. Who will smash through the barrels and climb to the top, and who will fall?

A cast of fine local actors bring the story to life, including Luke McConnell as Mitchell (an excellent likeness), Anthony Nathan as rival Steve Wiebe, Jim Banta as Donkey Kong’s “Number Two” Brian Kuh, Ryan Powell as arcade referee Walter Day, and Kayla Lee as Steve’s longsuffering wife Nicole. As to their singing and dancing — well, did I mention they are fine actors? Still the moves they bust just add to the fun as we all take so seriously what is literally a two-bit hobby (at least before games cost more than a quarter to play).

Full disclosure: We’re very good friends with Ross, but when you experience “ArcadeFire!” presented by her Catalyst Repertory at the Firehouse union hall, third floor, you’ll want to be her pals, too.

*Among the Billy Mitchell swag is his signature hot sauce (which he will sign if you ask). Wendy and I tried it on some roast beef, and it is excellent, with rich flavors reminiscent of Cholula, but with a little more kick. It has sweet with the heat, so is fine for moderate spice users — though it might disappoint those who want something that sets their heads on fire (what’s up with you people?!). Later at the beer tent I saw some Fringers shaking a little into their beer, and they said it was good that way. To each their own.

We’ve got a hot lead on a play at the Fringe

By John Lyle Belden

New local company Fat Turtle Theatre makes a bold debut with its production of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the Pulitzer-winning drama by David Mamet, directed by company co-founder Aaron Cleveland.

For those unfamiliar, the play is about real estate salesmen in a high-pressure Chicago office in the early 1980s. For those who have seen the 1992 film, note that Blake (a/k/a “F— You,” played by Alec Baldwin) was a part written for the movie, and does not appear in the play. One can presume, prior to the opening scene, that Blake already made his famous speech that the bosses have declared a sales contest with a Cadillac as first prize, and third place means you’re fired. The best sales leads are going to the best salesmen, and office manager Williamson (played here by Ryan Reddick) is in charge of doling them out.

The play opens with Williamson being berated and cajoled by past top-seller Shelly “the Machine” Levene (Doug Powers), who feels he deserves the top Glengarry leads. We next meet frustrated fellow salesmen Dave Moss (Luke McConnell) and George Aaronow (Jeff Maess), who consider more drastic measures to get ahead. Finally, we see top seller Richard Roma (Tristan Ross), working up to a sale with his latest mark, timid James Lingk (Rex Riddle).

The second act begins with the office having suffered a burglary, investigated by Detective Baylen (Jason Page). As the whole ensemble flows in and out of the room, the drama intensifies and we learn a lot more than who wins the new car.

Speaking of hot leads, these roles are among the most coveted among male actors when this play revives on Broadway, and Fat Turtle has found a worthy cast for the Indy boards. Powers gives his all in the most high-profile role, taking Shelly to every emotional extreme while staying believable and relatable.

Ross makes good use of his talent for Shakespearean patter to deliver Roma’s pseudo-philosophical soliloquies that he uses to lull prospective buyers into being receptive to his pitch. We can easily buy that this is the best man at selling patches of dirt to insecure souls with money.

Maess embodies the not-getting-any-younger quiet desperation of Aaronow, while McConnell expresses the more desperate and impulsive urge to get ahead at any cost.

Riddle does mouse-y well, and we can’t help but feel for him. Page’s performance just gets stronger as his character gets increasingly frustrated with the room full of patience-testing egos. Reddick’s Williamson is just an unapologetic a-hole, well played without compromise, and we have to respect him for that.

There’s a chuckle to be had here and there, and the marvelous absurdity of what grown men are willing to say to each other under stress – or just to keep a sucker in the sale. And, of course, be prepared for lots of salty language. This is drama at its best, a half-dozen men sweating out what could be one of the best or, more likely, worst days of their miserable lives. You owe it to yourself to close the sale on some tickets for this show before it closes on Oct. 15.

Performances are at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., just east of the College, Mass Ave., St. Clair intersection. Visit www.IndyFringe.org for tickets.

Review: Complex killer musical at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

For about a year now, it has been the unofficial Year of Sondheim around central Indiana stages. And now it appears to be Buck Creek Players’ turn, with its production of the musical, “Assassins.”

This play brings together in a dark-humored fantasia various men and women who killed – or tried to kill – the President of the United States. The genius of this piece by Sondheim and James Weidman is that it compellingly presents these individuals’ point of view without glorifying their acts.

The Proprietor (Steven R. Linville) in this room outside of time and space is offering guns to the various frustrated characters seeking – something. Perhaps it’s personal relief; perhaps it’s attention; perhaps it’s to change the world. The solution? Shoot the President.

The characters represent people who actually existed (a couple are even still alive), who you may or may not have heard of, but they all look up to the one we all know: Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Mark Meyer). Charles Guiteau (David Wood) would be shocked that we don’t know his name as readily, as he expected his shooting of President James Garfield (briefly played by chorus member W. Michael Davidson) to boost sales of his book and lead to him becoming President himself – rather than be hanged, which happened instead.

We also hear of the irrational motivations behind Leon Czolgosz (Jake McDuffee) shooting William McKinley, Guiseppe Zangara (Scott Fleshood) shooting at Franklin Roosevelt, John Hinckley Jr. (Trenton Baker) shooting Ronald Reagan, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Stacia Ann Hulen) and Sara Jane Moore (Cathy Tolzmann) taking shots at Gerald Ford (played, complete with pratfall, by Bryan D. Padgett).

Most intriguing are the ramblings of Samuel Byck (Daniel Draves), taken from the actual tape recordings he made and sent to journalists, before attempting his plan to crash a passenger jet into the White House to kill Richard Nixon (his gun was used on others as he tried to take over the plane).

To let us know these assassins’ stories, we hear from a Balladeer (Luke McConnell), who eventually finds his own dark and infamous purpose.

These are not heroes; most are arguably insane, but it’s hard to say they are entirely bad people. These facts add depth to performances throughout the cast. Guiteau’s delusions make Wood’s portrayal one of the more entertaining. Hulen as a loopy-hippie Fromme and Tolzmann’s Kathy-Bates-esque turn as Moore provide much of the dark humor, especially in Moore’s total incompetence with a firearm. Mary Hayes Tuttle boldly portrays famed anarchist Emma Goldman, an influence on Czolgosz, who McDuffie infuses with desperation. Fleshood plays Zangara earnestly, an appropriate approach for someone whose pain was real but actions made little sense. And Draves is like an obscenity-spewing force of nature as Byck – the dirty Santa suit he wears to protest Nixon making him look even more unhinged. Baker’s Hinckley is a lost, confused boy with a gun.

Above all, Meyer exudes a charisma befitting Booth, a renowned actor before committing the one act he is known for, as he takes charge of this macabre exclusive club. Linville and McConnell ably represent American Culture and History, respectively, as tangible beings with genuine influence on the stories we see, making it feel inevitable when McConnell’s young man picks up the rifle.

(Note: This production doesn’t hold back on language. But then, the topic already makes this not a show for children.)

With sharp direction by D. Scott Robinson with Christine Schaefer, and interesting set design by Aaron B. Bailey, this is worth taking a shot at seeing down at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), through June 12. Just kindly leave your firearms outside.

No actual Presidents were harmed in the making of this musical. Find info at www.buckcreekplayers.com or call 317-862-2270.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)