Phoenix uncorks wine that makes you spill

By John Lyle Belden

“In Vino Veritas” means “in wine, there is truth,” referring to the way social beverages can loosen tongues so that unintended honesty spills out.

In the play, “Vino Veritas,” by David MacGregor, at the Phoenix Theatre, the central device is a vintage with a special ingredient (not grapes) that makes it a truth serum. After our characters imbibe, like Jim Carrey in the film “Liar, Liar,” they can’t not tell the truth. And for us in the audience watching the revelations unfold, it is fascinating, thought-provoking, and incredibly hilarious.

Lauren (Carrie Schlatter) and Phil (Wolf J. Sherrill) have a good life as professional photographers, having settled down from globetrotting to running a portrait studio while they raise their family. Lauren, who longs for adventure, resents what they’ve become, while Phil is quite happy. No longer risking his neck, he tracks how he outlives the lifespan of various animals, part of the endless useless trivia he knows — a trait that further irks Lauren. But she has brought home the rare and mysterious wine from their recent vacation in South America, and is eager to share it with their neighbors and best friends — Ridley (Michael Hosp) and Claire (Sarah Hund) — when they visit on Halloween prior to going to a neighborhood costume party.

The other couple arrives. While Claire, the reigning costume champion, has an intricate gown she worked on for months, Ridley, a doctor, takes advantage of the fact he is still technically on duty for a few hours to dress “ironically” as a doctor. 

Despite the obvious stress they all ignore, they agree to try the wine. After all, they have known each other for years, living next door to each other, attend the same church, and their children play with each other. What dark secrets could they possibly have? As it turns out, plenty.

The plot is in a similar vein to plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “God of Carnage” wherein situations get more and more out of hand with each revelation, and alliances constantly shift among the foursome. While some serious issues of trust, intimacy and truly understanding one another are addressed, it all comes packaged in wacky exchanges that leave you gasping from laughter. Hosp, a great physical comedian, actually plays it kind of easy, getting big laughs from small moments. Schlatter gets a lot of mileage from playing a personality who loves to stir the pot, while Hund is at turns masterfully manic and silly. Sherrill mainly displays an aw-shucks demeanor that meshes perfectly with the various neuroses on display. Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons directs.

It’s said that the truth will set you free — will that be the case here? Find out at the Phoenix’s smaller Basile stage; in performances through Nov. 24. Note Saturday times are 2:30 p.m. matinees instead of evening shows. Find the Phoenix Theatre at 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

IRT revisits the radical notion of doing what makes you happy

By John Lyle Belden

As for the appropriateness of bringing out the classic comedy, “You Can’t Take it With You,” I’m tempted to say “in times like these” – but really, there will always be distress and drama around us, thus it is always a good time to see this funny, heartfelt show.

So here we are, with the Indiana Repertory Theatre giving us its finely crafted production. While the Great Depression continues outside their beautiful house, “Grandpa” Martin Vanderhof (Robert Elliott) and his brood are feeling quite fine, thank you.

Penelope Sycamore (Millicent Wright) taps away at a typewriter that was accidentally left at their doorstep years ago, while her husband Paul (James Leaming) works on innovating large-display fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Ansley Valentine), a delivery man who never got around to leaving. Daughter Essie (Mehry Eslaminia) pursues ballet dancing, without quite catching it, under Russian ex-pat Boris Kolenkhov (Joey Collins), with her husband Ed (Carlos Medina Maldonado) accompanying on xylophone while printing whatever phrase sounds clever on his little press. Maid Rheba (Brianna Milan) happily prepares whatever meals the family’s whims dictate, from corn flakes to canned salmon, while wooed by handsome Donald (Adam Tran) who is helpful, but no too much as he’s “on relief.” Speaking of romance, the Sycamores’ other daughter, Alice (Janyce Caraballo), is about to marry her boss, Tony Kirby (Aaron Kirby, coincidentally), but she frets at the prospect of his parents (David Lively and Carmen Roman) meeting her not-quite-“normal” family. And on an evening when everyone is just being themselves, joined by friend and tipsy actress Gay Wellington (Molly Garner), they do.

In addition, we get visits from characters played by Scott Greenwell, Michael Hosp and Zachariah Stonerock, as well Jan Lucas as the Archduchess Olga.

For the unfamiliar, I can’t help but describe this play as “The Addams Family,” but without the creepy aspects – partly because the recent Addams Broadway show borrowed a lot of the same plot points. At the core of it all is the notion that there shouldn’t be something wrong or embarrassing with doing what feels right, along with the gentle lesson that one needn’t be doing what makes them miserable, either.

All performances are spot on and appropriately hilarious. It would be a crime not to have someone as talented as Wright in the lead, and her being in an interracial couple in the 1930s only underlines the exceptionally open and accepting nature of the central family. Also, Maldonado gets to show off his musical side.

Being the IRT, the whole look and feel is perfect, including scenic designer Linda Buchanan’s busy-yet-orderly set decoration. Peter Amster directs.

Do something that makes you happy – like check out this show. Performances are through May 19 on the IRT mainstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

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: Unforgettable encounter with ‘Don’

By John Lyle Belden

Underlining the drama of “Halftime With Don,” a new play at the Phoenix Theatre, is the proposition – likely a fact – that America’s favorite sport is killing its players.

While Don Devers (an awesome performance by Bill Simmons) is fictional, the NFL heroes he mentions whose lives ended violently, often by suicide, were very real. Years after retiring from 10 seasons of pro football as a star defensive tackle, enduring, in his words, “a thousand car crashes a season,” Don’s body is in ruin with his brain succumbing to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Caused by long-term repeated head impacts, CTE symptoms include dementia, mood swings and violent impulses. It has been found, in autopsy, in numerous football players and other athletes.

About a week before the Super Bowl, devoted fan Ed Ryan (Michael Hosp) visits his idol in a meeting arranged by Don’s estranged daughter, Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman), and Ed’s wife, Sarah (Chelsea Anderson). Both women happen to be pregnant, with Stephanie due to deliver any day.

However, Ed finds that his hero, barely able to stand without a walker, spends all day in a reclining chair, a dozen pill bottles by his side, surrounded by what appears to be an endless supply of products he might have endorsed in his playing days – cans of Pringles chips and bottles of Gatorade. Don’s lifelong habit of writing Post-It notes (originally for motivation and inspiration) is now his lifeline, with little reminders of daily facts and random thoughts all around him. But when Don finds a note he wrote saying, “He’s the One,” he opens up to Ed, and in his moments of lucidity he knows how this young man will help him.

Hosp’s natural ability to play an aw-shucks type character suits him well here, while imbuing Ed with surprising depth. He finds himself in a situation befitting a madcap comedy, but with serious consequences, and nails the performance. Briggeman and Anderson are outstanding as well, with stormy Stephanie and sunny Sarah’s growing relationship a vital subplot.

We’ve come to expect brilliance from Simmons, and he does not disappoint. When Don is in pain, we feel it; when he innocently looks at a friend like they have never met, you fight the urge to speak up and remind him. Even when the focus is not on him, his presence is felt. Were this a Broadway stage, a Tony would be in order.

Written by Ken Weitzman, “Halftime With Don” is a National New Play Network “Rolling World Premiere,” meaning more than one NNPN theatre will produce it, each lending the drama different stylistic touches. Phoenix producer/director Bryan Fonseca, with set designer Daniel Uhde, made use of the open space of the theatre’s downstairs area, placing two small stages – one, Don’s living room; the other, Stephanie’s home – on opposite corners with an open path between. This helps focus the action with smooth transition between scenes, as well as close audience seating for an immersive experience.

A story that’s about far more than football and the man who played it, “Halftime With Don” runs through Feb. 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass. Ave.) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

A merry time with Bard’s ‘Wives’

By John Lyle Belden

I’ve found that a play is much more entertaining if the actors involved seem to be enjoying themselves, especially with a comedy. And I get the impression that the players in Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project’s production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” are having a blast.

Centering on the popular character of bawdy, naughty Sir John Falstaff, this is one of the easier Shakespeare comedy plots to follow. Though we start with the typical multitude of characters thrown at us in the opening scenes, the groupings and motivations are fairly easy to sort out.

Falstaff (Adam Crowe) sets his wandering eye on two noble women, played by Amy Hayes and Claire Wilcher, the wives, respectively, of Ford (Rob Johansen) and Page (Josh Ramsey). The ladies, already annoyed by being wooed by the fat drunkard, discover they have been sent the exact same love letter and conspire their revenge. Meanwhile, Ford, learning of Falstaff’s advances, disguises himself as lecherous “Brook,” who approaches Falstaff and offers to pay him to have Mistress Ford after he’s done with her.

And in the other main plot, which will lead to the traditional wedding at the end, Page’s daughter Anne (Chelsea Anderson) is asked to choose between crass French Dr. Caius (Gari Williams) and shy Slender (Kelsey VanVoorst) – she wants neither, choosing Fenton (Benjamin Schuetz), who her parents do not like.

Another key character is Mistress Quickly (Carrie Schlatter), who acts as a fixer in these situations for anyone willing to pay her cash. Michael Hosp plays a Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, and other supporting characters are played by Frankie Bolda as Rugby, Zach Joyce as Shallow and Adam Tran as Pistol.

In an interesting casting twist, the character of Simple, who more than lives up to the name as he is sent in various directions on multiple errands, is played by one of the other actors not involved in the moment’s particular scene, and never the same one twice. Wisdom Tooth and director Bill Simmons also made a gentle parody of the Shakespearean tradition of boys playing female roles by having some male roles played by women (perhaps a nod to British slapstick “panto” tradition?).

The setting has been transported from Olde England to mid-twentieth-century America – around 1954, when the song “Hernando’s Hideaway” was a hit – at The Windsor Hotel & Resort in a mythical Miami or Palm Beach with a Thames River nearby. The art-deco look and ’50s summer wear add to the light atmosphere of the play.

The Elizabethan language, however, is kept intact. But with spirited delivery, including occasional abuse of the fourth wall, this cast brings out the belly-laughs from the audience and play off each other so animatedly that the best word for this experience is simply “fun.”

The play is often criticized for its relative simplicity, but it has its own depth – and how much profundity does one need in a farce? Presented to us in our sitcom-fueled culture, this show comes off like a classic “I Love Lucy.” Hayes and Wilcher definitely give Mistresses Ford and Page a Lucy-and-Ethel chemistry. And like those ladies, they manage to stay one step ahead of the bumbling men to wind up on top.

Performances are May 20-22 and 27-28 at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets see indyfringe.org or wisdomtooththeatreproject.org.

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