‘Carol’ gets musical comedy treatment

By John Lyle Belden

Marley was dead to begin with…” truly is a downer opening, but things can only go up from there, especially when Charles Dickens gets the once-over by local theatrical genius Ben Asaykwee, who wrote and directed the musical “A Christmas Carol Comedy,” playing through this weekend at the District Theatre.

Asaykwee has another show (“ProZack” at the Phoenix) so entrusts a cast of young and old, veterans and newcomers, led by the versatile Matt Anderson as Ebenezer Scrooge (and the assistant director).

To set the irreverent tone, we have a batch of young urchins (Quincy Carman, Ellie Cooper, Zara Heck, Ethan Lee, Sam Lee, Judah Livingston, Esmond Livingston, and Calvin Meschi) providing narration and appearing as needed. Others play various roles, notably Jared Lee at Bob Cratchit, Emerson Black as Jacob Marley, Amanda Hummer as Christmas Past, Tiff Bridges as Christmas Present, Shelbi Barry as Christmas Future, and Maria Meschi as ol’ Fezziwig. In addition, we have the talents of Lisa Anderson, Jenni Carman, Reilly Crouse, Jessica Dickson, Austin Helm, Emily Jorgenson, Anna Lee, Noah Lee, Adriana Menefee, Kallen Ruston, Michelle Wafford, and Charlotte Wagner.

Drop all expectations of a faithful rendition of the holiday classic (we all know it already) and revel in the silliness as this gang has a ball bringing more joy to the season. The revelation of Tiny Tim must be seen to be believed. There are also song-and-dance numbers, as Dickens no doubt never intended – watch out for flying cast members.

Our evening’s viewing at the District (627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis) was a sell-out; it will likely happen again. See indydistricttheatre.org.

Bard Fest: Humor and History with ‘King John’

This is part of Indy Bard Fest 2022, the annual Indianapolis area Shakespeare Festival. For information and tickets, visit indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

When most of us last saw or even thought of King John of England, he was still a Prince, frustrated with the antics of Robin Hood.

However, while Robin is legendary, there was a real John. Those taxes the Merry Men resented were a literal king’s ransom to rescue King Richard the Lionheart, his Crusading brother, and once John did ascend to the crown himself, his big achievement was getting badgered by the nobility to sign the Magna Carta. It didn’t help his reputation that he lost most of England’s lands in modern France, and that with historians he is overshadowed by one of the most awesome women of Medieval Europe, his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Can even William Shakespeare rehabilitate the image of this man? His “The Life and Death of King John” reads more like a complex cautionary tale with its twists of fate, as well as digs at the expense of France and the Catholic Church to keep Elizabethan audiences happy.

Now it is in the gentle hands of local director Doug Powers, who brings the Indy Bard Fest production of “King John” to The Shelton Auditorium at Butler University. His handling of the text brings out the humor in this history play, borne of the constant shifts between belligerence and brokered peace. The flow of the plot goes like: We’re at war! Now we’re not! We’re at war again! We’re… where were we…? There’s a dry, almost Pythonesque feel to some of the scenes, eliciting several chuckles from the audience.

Excellent casting helps: Zachary Stonerock gives John a sense of purpose, edged with frustration and notoriously quick temper. He strives to be a good ruler, while his mouth writes checks his army can’t cash. Gari Williams gives Queen Eleanor the regal bearing she held to her last days, her counsel helping keep John on task. Kevin Caraher portrays Philip of France as a monarch weary of war, but not relenting until his son Louis the Dauphin (Cael Savidge) and Duke Arthur (Max Gallagher), who has a claim to England’s throne, get their due. Star turns in supporting roles include Sabrina Duprey, who finds herself little more than a pawn in this game as Princess Blanche of Spain; Tony Armstrong as Hubert, a faithful servant with an impossible choice; and the brilliant Matt Anderson, first as a citizen of a besieged city who offers a crucial compromise, and later as Cardinal Pandulph, who acts with the Pope’s authority to excommunicate King John.

The top performances here are by Georgeanna Smith Wade in two fiery mother roles – most notably railing at all the politicking and half-measures keeping young Arthur from the throne – and by Taylor Cox as Philip “The Bastard” Faulconbridge, illegitimate son of John’s brother Richard, named a Knight in the King’s forces. Cox exudes a brash confidence that seems unearned at first, growing throughout as his role makes him both provocateur and chorus, giving many a sly aside or clever commentary to us watching.

Once again, Bard Fest has served up a Shakespeare work we don’t often see and makes it entertain and even enlightening when compared to the fickle nature of modern statecraft. Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Oct. 14-16 at the Shelton, 1000 W. 42nd Street, on the grounds Butler shares with Christian Theological Seminary.

IndyFringe: Tortillo 3, Sombrero’s Revenge

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

Casey Ross has brought back another chapter in the never-ending saga of the Tortillo Corporation and its unfortunate predicament of having cocaine mixed into the seasoning mix for their chips, again. Again.

Presenting “Tortillo 3: Sombrero’s Revenge,” by Ross’s Catalyst Repertory. Even though this is the third installment of the series, you do not have to have seen the previous ones to understand or enjoy it. In fact, highlights of the first two shows are shown prior to beginning of the performance. The cast has an opening number discussing the past events as well.

We begin with put-up Patrick (Dave Pelsue) dealing with imbecilic customer complaints as well as disappointment in the company overlooking his accomplishments.

While Dave (Robert Webster, Jr.) is trying to keep things in the company on an even keel, his decision to bring back the sexist pig, Steve (Matt Anderson) to head up their pretzel division has caused much distress throughout the company even with his wife (Lisa Marie Smith) and their baby Chip. After a heated board meeting, Patrick quits to pursue his dreams.

While Steve and his idiot nephew, Mitchell (Ryan Powell) – Patrick’s cellmate during chapter 2 – are doing research, it’s discovered that the chips are doped yet again, leaving Patrick as the prime suspect.

Will we find out who was behind this nefarious plot? Will Sombrero actually return? Who exactly is the lovely Madeline (Trick Blanchfield) and why does she seem to know so much about Patrick’s past? Also, why is Ted (Tristan Ross, no relation) even here – didn’t we kill him already? That’s not THE John Entwistle (Brian Kennedy) as our Janitor/Narrator, is it?

These burning questions and many more will be answered (whether you want them to or not) in this crazy show. Watch, laugh, enjoy, and be ready in case this gang cooks up another sequel.

Note Casey likes writing the F-word, otherwise it’s OK for teens and up, with performances Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Aug. 27-28; and Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, Sept. 1 and 3; at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

‘Birds’-inspired ‘Fowl’ far more funny than frightening

By Wendy Carson

Ben Asaykwee, the force behind Q Artistry and creator of the perennial favorite “Cabaret Poe,” has tapped his deep comical well to bring us the hilarious musical delight that is “The Fowl.” In this sharp parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, “The Birds,” we are transported to 1960s Bodega Bay, California, where several mysterious bird attacks occur. 

We are reminded that the secondary romantic plot is better suited to a film on the Hallmark channel, though necessary to facilitate the events in which the attacks take place. While the show’s costumes and “wigs” give everything the look of a cartoon, they are quite ingenious and perfectly reflect the quirkiness of the show. The special effects are crude but reinforce the irreverence of the production. 

Though the look is reminiscent of what one would expect from an elementary school show, the cast and crew are genuine in their love of what they are doing and passion to make you laugh. It is also an excellent mentoring opportunity, as local stage veterans work side by side with young actors. 

This show is presented in two acts. The first retells the movie, pulling no punches at some of its more ludicrous portions.

The second act revolves around the stories of the birds themselves (from their point of view) and supposition as to why these attacks were necessary. While I personally take umbrage at the constant disparaging comments regarding the tardiness of the penguins, the birds do make some very valid points.

Asaykwee, as director/choreographer, had cast members each learn more than one set of roles, not only to help gain experience, but also in case a Covid-positive test sidelined any performers. You’ll see at least a different order in the lineup from one show to the next. Therefore this is a true ensemble effort. That flock includes: Matt Anderson, Shelbi Berry, Quincy Carman, Jaddy Ciucci, Ellie Cooper, Finley Eyers, Fiona Eyers, Janice Hibbard, Tiffanie Holifield, Noah Lee, Maria Meschi, Pat Mullen, Himiko Ogawa, Inori Ogawa, Wren Thomas, Diane Tsao, and Noah Winston. 

At our performance, we saw Berry doing her best Tippi Hendren, a scene-stealing turn by Finley Eyers as an over-eager Seagull, and a beautiful interpretive Ostrich dance by Holifield.

With all the current stress in the world and each of our lives, it is good to be able to go out and have a really good laugh. This show will afford you a whole flock of opportunities to do just that. So go out and catch “The Fowl” – Thursday through Sunday (March 3-6) at The District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis – before the opportunity flies past.

A king’s journey, from fun with Falstaff to hostilities with Hotspur

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

By John Lyle Belden

While I can heartily recommend any of this year’s Bard Fest shows, the one that has the most elements of Shakespeare’s storytelling is the oft-overlooked “Henry IV, Part 1,” presented by First Folio and directed by Glenn L. Dobbs. It combines comedy, drama, adventure, and a bit of actual British history in a rather entertaining package.

It is a story of the misspent youth of “Bonny Prince Hal” (Matthew Walls), the man who would eventually become the legendary King Henry V, as well as the struggle by his father, Henry IV (Abdul Hakim-Shabazz), to maintain a united kingdom.

Hal has his fun with best friend Ned Poins (John Mortell) as they jest with famed drunkard Sir John Falstaff (Matthew Socey) and his minions, cowardly Bardolf (Jonathen Scoble) and berserker Peto (Missy Rump). From these scenes we get a lot of laughs, and are treated to some of the Bard’s more colorfully-written insults.

Meanwhile, the King has to deal with a plot led by Henry Percy (Matt Anderson), known as Hotspur for his fiery temper, aided by relatives Worcester (Sara Castillo Dandurand) and Mortimer (Eric Mannweiler), the Scottish Earl of Douglas (Andy Burnett), and Welsh rebel Glendower (David Mosedale). On Henry’s side stand Sir Walter Blunt (Eli Robinson), Lord Westmoreland (Brian Kennedy), and eventually Hal, the Prince of Wales himself, having sworn off his prior foolishness.

The decisive battle that ensues gives the narrative a sense of completion, especially in Hal’s arc from boy to man, but leaves sufficient details to be resolved in the more serious “Henry IV, Part 2.” Still, this play easily stands alone.

Our cast inhabit the roles naturally — perhaps Socey is just an alias for Falstaff? Hakim-Shabazz is appropriately noble, Walls slips easily into Hal’s many modes, and Anderson can play a villain like no other. Also notable are Afton Shepard as Percy’s bitter wife (as well as a sweet “working girl” at the tavern), and Michelle Wafford as a Welsh lady betrothed to a man she loves but whose language she can’t understand, and especially as the in-charge Hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday (with talkback afterward) and 1 p.m. Sunday at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave.

IndyFringe: Fairy Godmother & Associates

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

Things are looking very bleak for Fairy Godmother & Associates. They have no clients, her magic is misbehaving, and the Wolf (Big Bad, her landlord) is literally at her door demanding that if she doesn’t pay him the past due rent by midnight, she’s out on the street. Even her Associate, Sebastian the mouse, doesn’t have any ideas.

Luckily, her past client, Red (as in Riding Hood) brings her into the 21st century by setting up an online ad for her matchmaking services. In no time, a wealthy new client, Prince Charming, hires her. He is desperate to find a beautiful woman who dropped her mirror and needs her to become his bride by midnight or he may lose his crown.

While she tries to get him to understand that the search could take time, he will have none of it. He wants her and he doesn’t have time to wait — he is British, after all.

Red helps her place and ad on Facebook and while she is overwhelmed by the magnitude of responses, she does find the mirror’s owner, Ella. A meeting that evening is arranged and everything is going to work out perfectly.

But before you can say “Bibbity Bobbity Boo-Hoo” everything goes awry. Will the Prince find his bride? Will the Fairy Godmother get her money in time? Will everyone live happily ever after?

You will have to catch the show to find out. Just remember this: “Never screw with the Woman holding the Magic Wand!”

Lisa K. Anderson delights as the ever optimistic Fairy Godmother. Her spunky demeanor keeps the show light as a feather.

Kyle Kellam does an amazing job at bring the big and bad to his over the top portrayal of the wolf as a sleazy manipulator who is always on the hunt to fill either his belly or his bed.

The versatile Matt Anderson gets a chance to over-emote to the extreme as the vapidly self-centered Prince Charming.

Sabrina Duprey shows some range with her varied portrayals of Ella and her Evil Stepsisters.

The cast is rounded out by Carl Cooper who pulls double duty as the imposing voice of Ella’s enchanted mirror and the ever faithful associate, Sebastian the mouse (Squeak, Squeak, Squeak).

A Head Gap Production by Enid Cokinos, find this fairy tale at the Fringe building, 719 E. St. Clair with performances Thursday through Saturday (Aug. 22-24).

 

Civic goes Wilde

By John Lyle Belden

If you think Victorian English manners and society were stuffy and insufferable, imagine how it was for someone living through it. Fortunately, Oscar Wilde had his rapier wit to help him skewer those pretensions in his masterpiece farce, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents in the cozy confines of the Studio Theater through April 6.

In 1890s London, among polite folks for whom ignorance is a virtue and honesty a vice, John (Ethan Mathias) and Algernon (Bradford Reilly) have been undertaking some “Bunburying” – that’s not code for something obscene; it’s just the simple practice of being one person in town, and another in the country. John is in love with Gwendolen (Carrie Schlatter), while Algernon has fallen in love with John’s ward, Cecily (Sabrina Duprey). But both ladies insist on marrying a man named Earnest. So both our heroes oblige, and hilarious confusion follows.

Gwendolen’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), is very particular about who the girl marries. Meanwhile, Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Miki Mathioudakis) is trying to get the attention of the Reverend Chasuble (Craig Kemp), but she is also hiding an important secret.

The incomparable Matt Anderson completes the ensemble as the butler at each house. Performances are top-notch, and even the scene changes are entertaining — executed by the actors under Anderson’s watchful eye.

When the world is full of absurdity, nonsense starts to make its own sort of sense. That was Wilde’s world then, and some could argue that reflects our world now. So, enjoy this Earnest effort at classic comedy.

The Studio Theater is at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For tickets and information, call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Bard Fest: CTC makes ‘Much Ado’ really something

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

By John Lyle Belden

For those who tire of Shakespeare plays being set in all manner of different times and places, good news – Carmel Theatre Company’s production of the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” retains its original setting of 1600s Italy. But for those who don’t want to see every random character and hear every scripted word (raises hand) this play has undergone some gentle editing, adapted by director Laura Kuhn, sparing us from the sprawl of characters the Bard typically populates his comedies with.

With easy to follow cast and plot, and sharply delivered lines, we get an entertaining romp that often has the feel of a TV sitcom. This establishes itself from the beginning, as returning soldier Benedick (Steve Kruze), whose wit is as sharp as his sword, starts verbal sparring with Beatrice (Christine Kruze), a slightly less cynical version of Kate from “Taming of the Shrew.” They each have such a disdain for love and marriage that – well, you can guess what’s in store for them.

But the big love story is Count Claudio (Jeffrey Bird) who longs to woo the maiden Hero (Elysia Rohn). His BFF Don Pedro (Matt Anderson) arranges the match, but Pedro’s sister Donna Joanna (Amanda Bell) doesn’t like it when people are happy – especially her brother – and sets out to ruin the impending marriage. She nearly succeeds, but this is a comedy.

The actors so far listed deliver brilliantly, as well as Tony Johnson as Hero’s father Leonato, David Whicker as his brother Antonio, Jarrett Yates as Don Pedro’s servant Balthasar, Leah Hodson as Hero’s attendant Margaret, Dustin Miller and Manny Casillas as Donna Joanna’s minions Borachio and Conrade, Daniel Young as Friar Francis, and Jim Mellowitz as the Sexton. As for Jim Maratea as Constable Dogberry, as his partner Verges (Guy Grubbs) would mark it at the appropriate time that he is “an ass,” his gaily executed performance takes his comic foil role to its limits.

Even for one like me who has seen a few “Much Ados” this earnest production delivers, with much laughter and appropriate melodrama. The scenes where one character listens in on others’ conversations are gems of physical comedy. The costumes looked perfect, but the set a bit too solidly built – hopefully they can find a way to smooth the scene changes by the second weekend.

As the play’s title implies, what doesn’t seem that big a deal becomes literally life-and-death situations. We laugh at those old-time attitudes, but one honest look at the Internet shows we’re never immune from the drama.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5-7 at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

Civic hosts Christie’s deadly countdown

By John Lyle Belden

Set in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater, rather than its regular stage next door, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre invites you to look in on a classic mystery: See those 10 people at the party? They are all guilty of something, and one by one they will die. Who will be standing at the end? Are you sure you know?

The Civic presents Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Director Charles Goad (who we are more used to seeing on the stage than behind it) has trusted his talented cast the freedom to bring out the dark humor in the play’s growing suspense. Even when a character is one you wouldn’t mind seeing become the next victim of “Mr. Unknown,” he or she is presented in an entertaining manner.

Matt Anderson and Christy Walker sharply portray the domestics who literally help set the scene in a fine house on an island off the English coast. Vera (Carrie Schlatter at her steadily unraveling best) thought this was just a job opportunity. Army Cpt. Lombard (Joshua Ramsey as a unflappable man proud of all his qualities, good and bad) was advised to bring his revolver, just in case. Anthony (Bradford Reilly, doing upper-class spoiled well) is up for any kind of adventure. Mr. Daniels – or is that Blore? – (Steve Kruze, working the fine line between gruffness and guilt) was, or is, a cop, making him impossible to trust. Retired Gen. MacKenzie (Tom Beeler, showing mastery of a subtle character) can see this for the final battle it is. Emily (Christine Kruze, working a stiff upper lip that could break glass) is as sure of her own innocence as she is of everyone else’s immorality. Dr. Armstrong (David Wood, becoming even more likable as we find the man’s flaws) feels he could really use a drink, though he doesn’t dare. And prominent judge Sir William Wargrave (David Mosedale in top form) knows a thing or two about unnatural death, having sentenced so many to the gallows.

The cast is completed by Dick Davis as Fred, the man with the boat.

These actors give a delicious recreation of the old story which doesn’t feel dated, considering a strong storm on a remote island would cut off smartphone reception just the same as past means of communication. The plot is propelled by the old poem “Ten Little Soldiers” (a more palatable version than the frequently used “Ten Little Indians” or its original, more controversial, title). Ten tin soldiers stand on the mantle, their number decreasing throughout the play as the victims accumulate. The verse is on a plaque by the fireplace, and reprinted in the program for us to follow along.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but bear in mind that Christie wrote more than one way to end the story. See for yourself at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through April 8. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Rumor has it: Civic makes ‘Sense’

By John Lyle Belden

If you wonder at the possible appeal of a play based on a Jane Austen novel, consider the number of people, from all backgrounds, now hooked on Downton Abbey. And it’s not just the accents, the fine clothes, or even the tea – but a good well-told story that sustains such period tales’ popularity. And we all feel for those living mired in an environment of strict rules of conduct and etiquette.

“Sense and Sensibility,” a light drama based on Austen’s 1811 novel, at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Feb. 17, also emphasizes a public scourge with which we can all identify: The constant gossip and rumors, frequently spoken to set up and frame the scenes, sound all too familiar in our Twitter and TMZ world.

Weathering this social storm are the Dashwood family. The widow Mrs. Dashwood (Carrie Neal) and her daughters – sensible Elinor (Emily Bohn), romantic Marianne (Morgan Morton) and young Margaret (Elisabeth Giffen Speckman) – are forced to live on their own in a humble cottage, as their former estate had gone to a son from Mr. Dashwood’s prior marriage (women weren’t allowed to inherit). Despite being dropped to the lower rungs of the almost caste-like society of 1790s England, Elinor and especially Marianne receive the attentions of very promising single men, including shy Robert Ferrars (Joshua Ramsey), rakish John Willoughby (Justin Klein) and steady Colonel Brandon (Bradford Reilly).

In addition to these men, the cast also includes scene-stealer extraordinaire Matt Anderson as the Dashwoods’ cousin Sir John, whose generosity helps the women stay on their feet. In exchange, he – and nearly anyone else around – only want the latest juicy news from around the countryside.

This recent adaptation of Austen’s story by Kate Hamill, directed for the Civic by John Michael Goodson, is marked by its reliance on swirling rumor to drive the plot, as well as its minimalist staging. Little more than chairs and a few props are used, putting the focus squarely on the actors. Aside from Bohn and Morton, whose characters are the focal point of the book and play, all other cast members play multiple roles, and even the occasional dog or horse. This adds to the show’s sense of humor – enough to entertain, but never overreaching into farce. For instance, at one point Abby Gilster frequently enters and exits a scene as two different characters, making it an inevitable laugh line when one has to remark about the other.

High marks to all the cast, with clear characterizations despite a fairly high-energy pace (no dreary corset drama, this!). And as a woman’s novel adapted by another woman, it’s easy to see the story as a celebration of women working to live as much as possible on their own terms.

A review of the original New York production of this version calls it “Jane Austen for those who don’t usually like Jane Austen,” but that sells the source material short. This “Sense and Sensibility” looks through the old story through a more contemporary lens, while leaving Miss Austen’s intentions intact. It only makes “sense” that you should check this out.

Performances are on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or visit www.civictheatre.org, or thecenterpresents.org for tickets.