Messages go out about the struggle within

By John Lyle Belden

“I don’t know what’s worse, trying to kill yourself or living with the fact that you tried to kill yourself.”

This lament sums up the situation for Claire, the young woman at the center of “Letters Sent,” the new drama by local writer Janice Hibbard in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company at the Indy Eleven Theatre.

Not every suicide comes with a note, but Claire (Lexy Weixel) wrote nine. She composed and sent them as snail-mail letters — bypassing the Internet for greater privacy — then went to her apartment bathroom and opened up her wrist. However, her mother, Florence (Kathryn Comer Paton), happened to discover her before it was too late.

The play begins with Claire cocooned in a bed in the attic of her mother’s house, just days after her discharge from the hospital. Adjusting to being not-dead is rough. We come to meet the people closest to her, including boyfriend/pseudo-brother (it’s complicated) Jack (Joe Barsanti), best friends Emma (Becky Lee Meacham) and Jane (Victoria Kortz), and her father, Robert (Doug Powers), who had moved to Florida after the divorce. Our story is set in Michigan, for a reason that soon becomes evident.

Claire’s mental progress is tracked through sessions with her therapist (Wendy Brown). Here we find that the letters were sent not only to the five people we meet, but also to four people Claire considered enemies — a final middle-finger to them on her way out, she says.

There does indeed seem to be progress, but the way isn’t easy, and when secrets held by those closest to Claire are uncovered, everything could come undone.

Weixel inhabits Claire perfectly, swinging from charming to childish to morose to wracked with guilt, constantly struggling with the messages from others as well as from within her head. Though the character, like the actor, is in her early 20s, Claire being at this life crossroads has regressed her into a sort of frustrated teenager. Still, she is relatable, someone you want to reach out to.

Paton, as a Mom who must maintain control as chaos terrifies her, is both Claire’s savior and a well-meaning obstacle to her recovery. Powers is the cool Dad, perhaps because he understands Claire’s struggle more than she knows. Barsanti’s Jack is a hot mess in his own way, and Kortz and Meacham are friends dealing with the desire to be supportive, but either too confident (Emma) or unsure (Jane) of exactly how.

The topics of mental illness and suicide seem to pop up quite often lately, even on stage. Just a couple of months ago, we had “Every Brilliant Thing” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. One important lesson we get from both that play and this is that what we think will help won’t necessarily work — but given a chance, a spark from within can be what saves us. Will Claire find hers?

Directed by Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood, performances of “Letters Sent” run through March 24 at the Indy Eleven, a stage in the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair. For tickets and info, visit fatturtletheatre.com or indyfringe.org.

IRT: Happiness is a long list

By Wendy Carson

Depression, suicide, and mental illness have all been highly stigmatized subjects. Only recently have we as a nation been broaching these topics, yet still refer to them in hushed tones.

In the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s staging of “Every Brilliant Thing” by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, we are presented with a unique look at someone dealing with the above issues through personal accounts of his experiences.

This is the story of a Man (no name is given) whose mother’s first attempt at suicide is when he is 7 years old. To somehow make sense of things, and help her heal, he begins to make a list of things that are worth living for. No matter how hard he tries to get this across to her, she seems to not listen. After a while the list is abandoned in the pages of a favorite book and forgotten.

During his college years, he begins wooing a girl and inadvertently loans her the book containing the list. She delights in the idea and returns it to him with a few of her own additions. The two continue adding to the list and he continues to send its contents to his mother, but to no avail. Her suicidal tendencies overwhelm her no matter what.

Since this is not a fairy tale, nobody lives happily ever after. The man and his girlfriend marry, then separate. The abandoned list resurfaces, only about 1,000 items shy of one million. How many more Brilliant Things can they add?

The story overall is quite endearing. It’s never too dark or too syrupy, but very true to the realities of the world. What sets it apart is the manner in which it is presented.

Prior to the show, lone performer Marcus Truschinski hands out postcards and other scraps of paper to various members of the audience. Each has a word or phrase on it along with a number. When he mentions that number – an item on the list – during the show, the person holding the corresponding card must shout out the information for all to hear.

There is a small section of audience seating at the rear of the stage which patrons can choose. Of course, these people will be incorporated into the show, as the script requires various other people to interact with Truschinski in order to tell the story. However, in a stroke of misdirection, audience members from all over are actually used.

True to the show’s fringe-festival roots, with its audience interaction each performance is entirely unique. Add to this Truschinski’s amazing improv skills and you have an evening of theater that is uplifting, thought provoking, touching, and enriching throughout.

Make a note to add this experience to your own list. Performances are through Feb. 10 on the upperstage of the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy; call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

IndyFringe: ‘Hers is the Head of a Wolf’

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 Wendy Carson

First of all, let me tell you that this show is about Schizophrenia. It’s initial scene makes that unclear and there is the ambiguity of the situation where it could be about something else (read: lycanthropy). Now that you know this, lets talk about the show.

This show is powerful and amazing. It does a great job of giving insight to the real struggle of a victim of this disease and those around them who are either trying to help them or just be a part of their life.

I was especially impressed by the portrayal of Danny, who starts as her tutor and then begins to turn into a boyfriend. His character is not white-washed wholesome nor entirely cut-and-dried sympathetic. He gets angry and loud at times but is tender and concerned at others which is a much more realistic look at how one would be in the real world.

The therapist, Dr. Hamilton, is genuinely concerned and clearly doing his best to help guide his patient through learning to cope with this debilitating disease. However, even at his most earnest, his voice and advice does sound a bit patronizing.

Then of course, there is our heroine(?) Elise. She literally strips herself bare and exposes her fear, vulnerability, and sheer revulsion at her plight. She struggles to overcome her demons (whose voices we eventually hear for ourselves). She didn’t ask to be like this. She doesn’t want to be like this. She just wants to feel safe for once in her life.
What becomes of each of our players is for you to witness and by all means, you really should witness this. Just know that the show is gut-wrenching and can be overwhelming (much like the condition it portrays).
One performance remains, 9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21, at the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the Mass Ave. and College intersection.

Phoenix: Try this ‘reality’ programming

By John Lyle Belden

“Cry It Out,” the drama finishing the Phoenix Theatre’s eventful 2017-18 season, impacts you with just how real it feels.

As I’m sure playwright Molly Smith Metzler and this show’s director, Chelsey Stauffer, are aware, this is an effective “issue” play in that the focus is more on the people going through the issue than the thing itself. In this case, it’s what’s considered a universal experience – becoming parents to your first child, focusing on doing so in today’s world, and the psychological toll we are only beginning to understand.

Metzler has found the perfect setting: a Long Island neighborhood where Jessie (Lauren Briggeman), an upper-middle class professional, lives right across her back yard from Lena (Sally Scharbrough), who is struggling working-class, while on a cliff just hundreds of feet away are the very rich, of whom we meet Mitchell (Michael Hosp) and Adrienne (Andrea Heiden).

Feeling alone in her new-mommy experience, Jessie reaches out to Lena, who is grateful to have a likely friend so close at hand. In their perfectly crafted and acted conversations, we see the psychological walls they hit when their social and financial differences are made clear, followed by the earnest efforts to bridge their gap – for the sake of their own sanity as well as the benefit of their babies – forming a bond that seems so natural, like that friend you just “click” with.

Seeing this from his lofty view, Mitchell decides to ask them if his wife can join them for one of their “coffee meetings” – in one of the most uncomfortably comedic scenes I’ve seen lately. But when Adrienne arrives, she is not happy to be there. Clearly, these people have issues.

The sense of reality goes beyond the fact that it’s easy to forget Briggeman and Scharbrough are not actually moms with sleeping babies just offstage. This drama plays with your expectations in a clever way, by taking your “oh, I know how this is going to go” we’ve been conditioned to by TV, films and wishful thinking, and bringing a twist that is just like what happens to people you actually know. Being largely told from Jessie’s perspective, the story also confronts her and us with our assumptions. And in the process, we get some situational laughs – like real life.

This is one of those plays (thanks again, Phoenix!) that I can’t say you’ll “enjoy” in the fun sense, more like the fact that you’ll savor first-class acting and come away with some great food for thought. Come hungry.

“Cry It Out” plays through Aug. 26 in the “black box” Basile stage – seating surrounds most of the stage area – at the Phoenix’s new permanent home, 705 N. Illinois St. Note showtimes are a half-hour different than the mainstage. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix blesses us with ‘Rosewater’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre, at its new home at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy, is off to a great start with the musical of “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” – by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (one of their first collaborations) from the novel by Indiana’s own Kurt Vonnegut – playing through June 3.

The title refers to Eliot Rosewater, son of a millionaire U.S. Senator, who manages the family foundation which gives money to practically everyone who asks. But being generous is not enough to soothe his conscience, bothered by his actions in World War II that resulted in the death of German volunteer firemen. So he disappears from his New York office and pops up at volunteer firehouses across America, seeking his purpose until he finds it – at the family home in Rosewater County, Indiana.

Aside from the significance of telling an Indiana story by a Hoosier author, performing a satire about greed in today’s political climate, and having a show with science-fiction elements (the Phoenix’s very first show years ago, “Warp,” was sci-fi themed), it is notable that this musical is playing during May, Mental Health Awareness Month.

Psychological well-being is at the heart of the Rosewater story, from Eliot’s serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder, to the Senator insisting that no son of his would be “nuts,” to the plot hanging on our hero being insane because he actually considers those “beneath” him to be worthy of dignity – even equals. This latter disorder is too much for his wife to bear, driving her mad to the other extreme: only able to function among the very rich. Even Eliot’s well-meaning signs, saying, “DON’T KILL YOURSELF; CALL THE ROSEWATER FOUNDATION,” point to the need to encourage people to seek necessary help.

Patrick Goss wins our heart as Eliot, surrounded by a top-notch cast that includes Emily Ristine as his wife, Sylvia, and Phoenix founding member Charles Goad as Sen. Rosewater. Isaac Wellhauen is nicely conniving as financial advisor Norman Mushari, who finds a way to divert the Rosewater millions to long-ignored members of the family (for a hefty fee, of course). Suzanne Fleenor, another Phoenix founder and “Warp” veteran, plays Eliot’s psychiatrist. Other parts are also taken by familiar faces: Jean Childers Arnold, Scot Greenwell, Rob Johansen, Devan Mathias, Josiah McCruiston, Deb Sargent, Peter Scharbrough, Diane Boehm Tsao, and Mark Goetzinger as McCallister, the family banker.

Little bits of sci-fi poke in from time to time in true Vonnegut fashion, as the show is also a tribute to the greatest SF writer who never lived, Kilgore Trout. Like the best of the misunderstood genre, the otherworldy perspective allows us to get a fresh perspective on our very human behavior (and gives the props and costumes folks something to have fun with).

The songs and script show the spark of the genius that gave us “Little Shop of Horrors” and those Disney classics. The look and performances are well worthy of the beautiful new space, another triumph for director Bryan Fonseca.

The new theatre has plenty of room, and plenty of free parking, so go check it out. Info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org or call 317-635-7529.

The lighter side of a heavy topic

By Wendy Carson*

Kate Huffman hates her body. I hate my body. In fact, all of the women (and many of the men) reading this hate their bodies. We are taught to do so from the moment we are able to understand the concept of beauty and acceptance. Our society’s definition of female beauty is unattainable, unhealthy and potentially deadly.

“I’m Too Fat For This Show” is a large step in one woman’s journey to come to terms with her OCD, control issues, eating disorder and general neurosis.

She presents both her struggle and unusual outlook by opening with scenes from the video for “No Rain” by Blind Melon (a band, like Huffman, with Indiana roots).

Growing up as a chubby dancing girl, she was often compared to the little “Bee Girl” at the center of the video’s storyline. While she put on a brave face and tried to shake off all of the teasing about her weight, it was a grade-school field trip to Eli Lilly that changed her fate.

She learned about nutrition and how much fat she was actually putting in her body. She vowed to change her habits and began to lose weight. This lead to praise, which reinforced her drive and once her mom introduced her to the concept of counting calories, her fate was sealed.

Her days are filled with logs of calorie intakes, exercise reps, and more data that she and her eating disorder (introduced as her “Best Friend”) use to process her OCD and control her world.

Her Bestie even pops up on the video screen (played by Huffman) to encourage her to “hit her numbers” and remind her she is the only entity that truly cares about her.

This show is a comedy – and quite funny – but obviously also quite dark. It doesn’t hold back on language, or the facts of dealing with multiple disorders and conditions, mental and physical. To give us a perspective on what living with her issues would be like, she plays a scene as her long-time ex-boyfriend. In fact, her talents as an actress and improv performer are on excellent display in the various characters she puts on, including some half-and-half costume work.

Some praise is also due to her director Scout Durwood, and videographers Kenneth and Mariana Lui, for their parts in putting the pieces of this otherwise one-person show together.

It’s a cruel irony that Huffman is actually quite slender, and beautiful, yet only she (and the cruel standards of Hollywood, an issue she also addresses) sees herself as “fat.” But that is the nature of the disorder she and far too many others live with: Irrational impulses are irrational.

Kate Huffman bravely entertains us by sharing her pain, allowing us to admit that, in some ways, we all feel it too.

“I’m Too Fat for this Show” might still have some tickets left for Sunday, Dec. 10, at the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre – see www.indyfringe.org – before she takes the show to Ireland the next week, then to New England stages. See www.KateHuffman.com for more information on the show and future performances.

*(John also contributed to this review. Considering the personal nature of the show, there was a lot of discussion and collaboration, but this is mostly me.)

IndyFringe: ‘Canvas’

By John Lyle Belden

Standard disclaimer: I’ve known Casey Ross for years and love everything she does. So I can’t help but recommend this show, with a small caveat (see below).

“Canvas” is the third chapter of Ross’s trilogy that began with “Gallery” and continued with “Portraits” – both past Fringe shows. If you haven’t seen them, this play is still easy to follow, and a quick synopsis of the first two is in the program.

The story again focuses on two artists, best friends Jackson (Davey Pelsue) and Frank (Dave Ruark). In the past, free-spirit Jackson leaned on solid academic Frank, but now their situation is reversed as Jackson, a successful painter, cares for Frank, who has partial amnesia after an “accidental” drug overdose.

Once again, they struggle to define their relationship as each deeply loves the other, but the fact that one is straight and the other gay further complicates their feelings and actions. Their friends try to help, but have been burned by dysfunctional relationships with these two and can only do so much.

There is dark humor, raw emotion, and – my one caution – a frank examination of suicide. No easy answers are given, though this play does draw the trilogy to a conclusion.

Between Ross’s knack for sharp dialogue and a solid job by the actors, this play has earned its place as one of the hottest tickets at the Fringe. Get them if you can for performances Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25-26 ,at Theatre on the Square’s second stage.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.org.

IndyFringe: ‘Free the TaTas’

By Wendy Carson and John L. Belden

Even though it sometimes seems the whole world is pink, we still must understand that awareness of breast cancer — and all cancers — includes knowing that it affects real people, including those you know (or even yourself).

Set in an atypical breast survivors support group, this show touches on how various people deal with cancer in their lives. These women are trying to overcome their grief and be upbeat, but it is no easy task.

Miss Bettye (Sandy Lomax), the octogenarian leader of the group, is outright hateful, dismissive and rude to everyone, yet you sense she feels for them. While she insists on honesty in dealing with disease, she hides the fact they could soon lose their meeting place.

The members of the group range from a starry-eyed dreamer (T. Studdard), an overworked cleaner (Tamara E’lan G.), and a desperate woman just trying anything to get by (Georgeanna Anthony). The women are trying to support each other, but Bettye keeps them at each other’s throats more often than not.

Enter into this group the indomitable presence that it Bass (China Doll), so named because her fishing-obsessed husband thinks she’s his best catch of all time. Bass tries to get everyone back on track but is met with resentment and venom at every turn. Meanwhile, she masks her own pain with humor.

Can these women turn their personal drama into a loving and supportive environment?

As they open up their journals to share with each other (and us), the true beauty of this piece is revealed. Much of the play’s content is in fact based on actual people and events. Taken as a whole, this is a hot mess that transforms into a heart blessing.

At the end, there is a short talkback session for the audience and actors to discuss their own personal journeys.

Remaining performances are Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Aug. 26-27, at the Firefighter’s Hall, corner of Mass. Ave. and St. Clair.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.org.

Local writers keeping TOTS busy

By John Lyle Belden

For one more weekend, Theatre on the Square has a sort of double-feature going on: two distinct plays (each requiring its own ticket) by local playwrights, each exploring personal change in different ways: “Puppet Man,” by Andy Black; and “Clutter,” by Lou Harry.

“Puppet Man” is about a prison inmate with serious issues who finds solace by participating in the institution’s puppet shows held for visiting children. Pretty Boy (Taylor Cox) can’t get his guilty mind to shut up, so he dulls the sound with drugs, making his situation worse. When he finds out about the puppet program, his dealer Word (Carey Shea) makes him join in a plot to use the volunteer instructor’s privileges to sneak contraband into the prison. That compassionate visitor, Doc (Miki Mathioudakis), lets Pretty Boy into the program despite suspicions by her and the other inmate puppeteers, especially Sidewinder (Josh Ramsey). Fabulous Fantasia (Josiah McCruiston) and the mysterious Dayton (Matt Anderson), who only speaks through his puppets, help him to craft “Pretty Girl,” the puppet star of the next show. Then Pretty Boy discovers that the voice he now hears in his head is hers.

Though I am not personally familiar with the culture of life behind bars, Black’s story feels real enough, with desperate men making desperate choices while others calmly plot to take advantage of them, a place where the smallest things we take for granted outside have enormous value. While each character is a broadly-drawn type, they don’t come off as cliché. Cox handles being the central character with skill – a tall order, given McCruiston and Anderson’s ability to steal their scenes. Pretty Boy is a complex personality, and his mental issues provide the underlying drama – is this show more like “Avenue Q,” in which the puppets teach us all life lessons, or “Hand to God,” in which the puppets channel dark impulses? Kinda both, actually, punctuated with dark humor. I encourage you to see for yourself what I mean.

“Clutter, or, The Moving Walkway will Soon be Coming to an End” is three scenes depicting the changes in four people’s lives over six years. First we meet Bobby (Ben Fraley) and Eddy (Nick Barnes), two best friends struggling to keep their business afloat. Eddy is the more scattered of the two, which only adds to Bobby’s tension. Aside from planning a networking party, they discuss their romantic prospects with an offstage coworker. We meet that woman, Barb (Anna Lee), in the second scene, three years later, talking about the frustrations of life with her best friend, Bev (Kelsey Van Voorst). Eventually, Barb sees a man she used to work with offstage, and decides to take her chances with him. Move on to the third scene, again three years later, involving all four characters at the home two of them share.

The theme seems to center on inevitable endings and the struggle to improve and change one’s path. One character appears to have turned his life around with “Mission” – a self-help method that helps him focus his life, but doesn’t automatically solve his problems. All seem to be seeking something new, yet something that remains stable, at the same time. Note a “shoe is on the other foot” metaphor with which woman wears the red shoes. The show has dynamite dialogue and sharp humor, thanks to Harry, but subtle pacing that – along with being a one-act – gives the sense that it is part of a larger story, feeling incomplete by itself.

There is a slight over-run on stage times – “Clutter” on the second stage follows “Puppet Man” on the main stage – but if you spring for both shows, it’s possible they could hold the curtain for the second. Or, as they are independent stories, you can simply see one or the other. Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Jan. 20-22, at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave.; call 317-685-8687 or see tots.org.

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: Not an easy ‘Road’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, and neither does popular playwright Steven Dietz, whose newest work, “Clover Road,” occupies the Phoenix’s Basile downstairs stage through April 10.

Kate Hunter (played by Jen Johansen), a mother whose child has been missing for four years, receives word that her teenage daughter is on the compound of a cult run by the charismatic Harris McClain (Bill Simmons). We meet Kate as she arrives at a room in an abandoned motel with a man (Rob Johansen) who has been hired to abduct the girl and bring her back to the room for deprogramming. He tests her resolve and thickness of her psychic armor before leaving, then arrives later with a girl Kate doesn’t recognize (Mara Lefler). The mind games begin – for everyone involved in this story – building to an inevitably tragic conclusion.

The opening night performance made a profound impression on mental health professionals in the audience.

“I kept thinking, ‘this is very realistic,’” said Katie Sahm, a licensed clinical social worker with Counseling Associates in the Community Health network, during a post-play discussion. Lefler’s portrayal of a youth convinced of the cult leader’s apocalyptic message felt accurate, she said.

The play reveals “the vulnerability of all of us,” said Jim Bush, Director of Operations for Eskenazi Health Midtown Community Mental Health Center. The desperation to believe what they hope is true and right is shown in all the characters, aside from svengali McClain, who Simmons imbues with easy charisma.

Sahm, Bush and family therapist Dr. Barbara Riggs, with play director Courtney Sale, frequently cited a person’s need for validation as a factor in why teens like the girl in “Clover Road” find themselves in cults, gangs or with strangers they meet online. Audience discussion turned to the role of social media. At one point in the play, it’s revealed the missing girl had been in contact with a person online who told her what she wanted, or needed, to hear.

“That’s the truly frightening part,” Sahm said of the issue of defending against predators who would wield personal validation as a weapon.

The play’s themes and the expert portrayals – the Johansens and Simmons are excellent as always, and Lefler makes a brilliant Phoenix debut – deliver riveting drama, and are bound to start interesting conversations on the way home.

The Phoenix Theatre is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

(Review also posted at The Word.)