Bard Fest presents a ‘First’

By John Lyle Belden

As local theatre struggles to get on stage, the organization Indy Bard Fest (with the help of companies that have presented the annual Shakespeare festival under its banner) is adapting to the times. Its first production is a free outdoor staging of the Bard-inspired “Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged)” by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor (of the infamous Reduced Shakespeare Company).

Bard Fest director Glenn Dobbs has persuaded the trio of Matt Hartzburg, J.B. Scoble, and Kelsey Van Voorst — no strangers to Shakespeare, parody, on-the-spot improv, or even the abridging of Wlm. Shkspr. — to put on silly clothes and risk their lives and dignity at a “Pestilent Pocket Park” in front of a bunch of masked strangers at strategically scattered tables.

It seems that some trivial historical bones were not all that were recently found in a Leicester, England, parking lot; there was also an entirely too long and overwrought script by an aspiring young playwright from Stratford-Upon-Avon. It turned out to be much ado over nothing, a winter’s tale for another era, a massive comedy of errors, but measure for measure a potentially great first draft if broken up into thirty-odd comedies, tragedies and histories.

However, Van Voorst (whom I did “mark down as an Ass” in a past review) claims she has gotten the whole monstrosity edited down to a watchable two acts, and Hartzburg and Scoble, having nothing better to do in quarantine, are playing along.

Imagine if the Complete Works of William Shakespeare were tossed into a blender (metaphorically, paper ruins the blades, trust me) and an improv company was ordered to perform it as soon as possible, with whatever was laying around the prop room (or purchased from the local dollar store, judging by at least one price tag we saw hanging). Yes, it’s Just. That. Fun. Perhaps it’s the incredible talent involved; maybe it’s the incredible flexibility of the material of a serious playwright who loved bawdy jokes; and maybe it’s also the fact that under the law, parody is fair game even if you are poking at Disney. Yes, we all know “Lion King” = “Hamlet”, but did Uncle Walt’s company steal other ideas, and characters like Ariel and Iago, from the Immortal Bard?

There’s even an overarching plot to this mess, involving two famed magical beings (from different Shakespeare plays) who don’t get along, and carry out their feud by scrambling characters and plots from various plays into, eventually, a single setting — kinda like “Into the Woods” (does Sondheim know about this?). 

Alas, poor playgoer, I’m committing this to the ether after the opening weekend performances of July 31-Aug. 2 at the IndyFringe Pocket Park are done. But hark! There are more stagings planned for Aug. 7-8 at The Cat performance space in downtown Carmel; Aug. 21 and 23 in Indy’s Garfield Park; Aug. 28-30 in Noblesville; and more locations in September. See indybardfest.com for details. Oh, and mark that admission to all performances is free! (Sack and other accommodations may cost; donations are always welcome.) 

Civic: ‘Nothing’ actually a big deal

By John Lyle Belden

For the first time in its long history, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre takes on Shakespeare with the comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Directed and adapted to one movie-length act by Emily Rogge Tzucker, the story — traditionally set in medieval Italy — takes place in 1945 as our soldiers come home from the War to an Italian villa in the Hollywood hills. As is usually the case, the character names and Shakespearean dialogue are largely untouched. 

At the fabulous estate of Leonato (Tom Beeler), Don Pedro (Joshua Ramsey) returns with his troops, including Claudio (Nicholas Gibbs), who has fallen for Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Carly Masterson); Benedick (John Kern), who enjoys verbally sparring with Leonato’s shrewish niece, Beatrice (Sara Castillo Dandurand); and Pedro’s surly brother, Don John (Darby Kear), who would rather stir up trouble than celebrate. Events include characters conniving to get Benedick and Beatrice to hook up, as well as the “fatal” wedding ceremony of Claudio and Hero. John’s wicked plot is uncovered by the goofy yet zealous constable Dogberry (Kelsey VanVoorst) and true to the Bard, we’ll get a very happy ending.

The cast also includes Jim Mellowitz as Antonio, Leonato’s brother; Sabrina Duprey and Leah Hodson as Hero’s best friends Margaret and Ursula; Max McCreary and Elisabeth Speckman as Borachio and Conrade, Don John’s devious but careless accomplices; Bill Buchanan and Matt Hartzburg as the Friar and the Sexton; Joe Steiner as Verges, Dogberry’s right-hand man; and Jonathan Doram as Balthazar, the soldier who performs Shakespeare’s song “Sigh No More” (music by Brent Marty), as well as one of Dogberry’s Watchmen, with Buchanan. To complete this list, Hartzburg, Julie Ammons and Stephanie Johnson play house servants.

The convoluted story is easy to follow and the actors do an excellent job of bringing it to life, complete with perfectly overdone comic moments. Master comic VanVoorst is in her element. Kern crisply delivers Benedick’s constant — and eventually contradictory — musings. The look provided by set and lighting designer Ryan Koharchik — with mood-setting skies and interesting circular motifs — and costume designer Adrienne Conces provides the perfect atmosphere for the mischief and merriment, while reflecting the height of the era’s style.

Don’t “let it be marked down that you are an ass” (as Dogberry would say) for missing the opportunity to enjoy Civic’s midwinter romp, through Feb. 22 at the Tarkington stage in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Shakespeare vs. six-shooters in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

Upon seeing that Main Street Productions in Westfield has produced “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” one might think that someone dusted off an old script — after all, the John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart movie, and the popular song, came out in 1962. But this play was written in 2014 — by Jethro Compton, based more on the original Dorothy M. Johnson story than the film. And this Western, set toward the end of the 19th century, has a lot to say to us in the 21st.

Rance Foster (Matt Hartzburg), a scholar seeking his fortune out West, is beaten and left for dead by Valance (Adam Davis) and his gang. Rescued by local cowboy Bert Barricune (R.C. Thorne), Foster is brought to a saloon owned and run by Miss Hallie Jackson (Sabrina Duprey) in the tiny town of Twotrees. The local Marshal (Kevin Shadle) isn’t much help as he feels the small bounty on Valance’s head isn’t near worth facing his gun. 

As Foster recovers, he discovers that “Reverend” Jim (Xavier Jones), the black boy who grew up with Hallie, has perfect memory — having earned his nickname by memorizing the Bible just from hearing it, despite being illiterate. Foster decides to teach Jim — and Hallie, and anyone who’s interested — to read, with the help of books he carries with him, including a volume of Shakespeare sonnets.

Hints of civilization don’t set well with Liberty Valance, who wants to keep the territory as lawless as possible for as long as possible, while enriching himself and his gang. So, he comes to visit Twotrees, setting in motion the events that lead to his final showdown.

The play is directed by Veronique Duprey, Sabrina’s mother. She said that when she found the script a couple of years ago and looked for an opportunity to stage it, she had not thought of her daughter to take the role of Hallie. But now, the casting seems perfect. An experienced young actress, Sabrina convincingly holds her own with the men — much like her character.

Other roles are also well-cast. Hartzburg wins us over as the idealistic tenderfoot; Thorne projects strength even standing still; Davis is perfectly chilling; Jones is outstanding in a surprisingly complex character; and Shadle takes what could be a comic role and stays true to the drama, playing the Marshal on the fine line of pragmatism and cowardice. Supporting roles are played by Cody Holloway, Alex Dantin, Robert Fimreite, Rich Steinberg and Rob Stokes.

Tom Smith lends his strong voice and presence as the Narrator, sort of a living embodiment of the Spirit of the West.

More than the events surrounding a legendary shootout, this is a story of love and loyalty, finding the strength to make one’s self and world better, and bravery beyond the ability to hold a gun steady.

And drinking a lot of fake whiskey (it is set in a saloon, after all).

Note the play includes coarse language and the use of loud blanks in the pistols (the venue is kind of small). Main Street Productions will break ground on a new playhouse in downtown Westfield later this month, but for now performances are still in the old former church building at 1836 W. State Road 32, through Oct. 13. Call 317-402-3341 or visit westfieldplayhouse.org.

CCP: Artist ‘dying’ to get popular in Twain farce

By John Lyle Belden

Mark Twain’s almost-forgotten farce, “Is He Dead?” has come alive in Fishers, thanks to Carmel Community Players.

Twain, the celebrated American author and humorist, wrote the play while traveling Europe and had planned on staging it in 1898, but those performances never happened. The script was rediscovered in 2002 and, adapted by noted playwright David Ives, finally reached Broadway in 2007.

Now it’s here.

A fictional version of actual master painter Jean-Francois Millet (played by Jaime Johnson) struggles to get noticed or even sell a single painting from his shabby home in Barbizon, France. His international circle of disciples, Chicago (Matt Hartzburg), Dutchy (Adam Powell) and O’Shaughnessy (Kelly Keller) recognize his genius, as do landladies Bathide (Lucinda Ryan) and Caron (Susan Hill), who don’t mind getting art for rent payments. But moneylender Bastien Andre (Larry Adams) wants real Francs in payment for debts owed, and threatens to foreclose not only on Millet’s studio, but also Monsieur Leroux (Keven Shadle), whose daughter he desires. However, Marie (Morgan Morton) is repulsed by Andre and is in love with Millet. Meanwhile, her sister Cecile (Monya Wolf) has her eye on Chicago.

Desperate for a way to quickly raise thousands of Francs, our artists get an idea after a clueless English art buyer (Dave Bolander in one of a number of hilarious roles) states that genius is only rewarded after the artist has died. Chicago then talks Millet into “contracting an illness” so horrible as to guarantee publicity of his impending “death.” Meanwhile, Millet appears in a dress as his twin sister, the Widow Tillou, to inherit the inevitable riches.

This being a comedy, of course, things don’t go entirely as planned.

Twain’s wry humor is woven throughout this satirical farce, and little moments of 19th-century style silliness work in the overall context. Johnson plays Millet as a down-on-his-luck everyman who just wants what’s due him, playing it straight against the comic antics of his students – and his scenes in drag are “Some Like it Hot” hilarious. Chicago, our lone American character, appears to be Twain’s surrogate in the story, a fast-talking charming schemer in the mold of Tom Sawyer, and Hartzburg turns on the charm in the role. Powell is like a caricature of a caricature, but is so likable it works. Wolf gets in some great moments with the old girl-disguised-as-man gag. And Johnson is delectably “boo-hiss!” worthy as our top-hatted melodrama villain, complete with twirled mustache.

Direction is by Mark Tumey, who said he came to love the play while portraying Andre in a production in Arizona.

The show’s social commentary on art and fame resonates a bit today, but mostly this is just a fun evening with the work of one of America’s greatest writers. As CCP is still seeking a full-time home, performances for this play are at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers, through June 24. Call 317-815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.org.