IndyFringe: Not Dead Yet

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

Dana Dunn is a retired actress. She gave up Hollywood while her star was on the rise and relocated back to middle-America to live a more normal life. She is quite happy not acting again for the rest of her days, living with her sister, Lana, who was her hair and makeup stylist. The two are lovingly close.

Dana’s devoted nephew, Shawn, is trying to bring her into the modern world by giving her an iPad fully loaded with all of the websites she would need, as well as links to accounts devoted to her and her career. He also has a tip that Ron Howard (a huge fan of Dana’s work) is casting a new movie and would be thrilled if she would consider joining the cast. Needless to say, Auntie Dana is having none of it.

After returning from a dear friend’s funeral, they are joined by Tom and his sister Sandy, who grew up next door. While Tom is sincere and level-headed, Sandy is a whiny, self-centered bitch on wheels. It is obvious that while they have both gotten older, neither of them has ever grown up.

At Dana’s birthday party — given by Grayson, her biggest fan and dear friend — we meet Sam Snyder, an aspiring actor who can only get a job spinning a “Cash 4 Gold” sign. Afterward, Dana and Lana pick up the iPad and start playing around on it. After many drinks, Lana takes a picture of Dana laid out on the couch and posts it to Twitter noting #DanaDunnIsDone. The next morning, everyone is convinced she is dead and, of course, hilarity ensues.

Miki Mathioudakis brings Dana to life with a perfect combination of spunkiness and willfulness. Forba Shepherd crafts Lana as a devoted sister but also highlights the character’s sly, manipulative side.

John Joyner does an understated job portraying Tom as the dependable rock that is always there for everyone. Tina Nehrling plays every neurotic affectation that combines to create the psycho powerhouse that is Sandy. Sean Q does a great job of playing the loving yet driven Nephew, Sean.

Lance Gray as Sam and John B Hays as Grayson spend so much time chewing scenery and just being overall fabulous, you can tell they are loving every second that they are embodying their characters.

Still, it’s very nice to see a show in which “ladies of a certain age” are written with dignity and respect, and are more than just caricatures themselves.

This comedy by Jan White has performances Friday and Saturday (Aug. 23-24) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

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.

CCP drama presents public family’s private truths

By Wendy Carson

In “Other Desert Cities,” presented by Carmel Community Players, the Wyeths aren’t an ordinary family.

The father, Lyman, is a retired Hollywood actor and staunchly Republican former politician and foreign ambassador. The mother, Polly, also a past actor, is a devoted political wife. Her sister, Silda Grauman, was writer and costar of their forgettable series of movies – their Tinseltown legacy. Silda is also a resentful recovering alcoholic whose circumstances force her to endure living with her sister’s family.

It’s Christmas time, and Lyman and Polly’s grown children have come home to Palm Springs, Calif., for the holidays. The son, Trip, lives nearby and works in the entertainment industry, producing a trashy, exploitative reality show. The daughter, Brooke, is a troubled novelist residing in New York. After a broken marriage, mental breakdown and institutionalization, a combination of effective therapy and completing another book has brought her out of her darkness and back to the desert.

The family has lived in the public eye, yet hides dark secrets. It turns out that Brooke’s book is a memoir focused on her older brother Henry, who committed suicide years ago after being implicated in a deadly bombing. Considering Henry a free-spirited hero and best friend, Brooke blames their conservative parents for his fate.

The resulting conflict drives the plot of this acclaimed drama by Jon Robin Baitz. Brooke (Shannon Samson in top form) wants her parents’ blessing before the book publishes, but their pushback, especially from Polly (Vickie Cornelius Phipps, a sharp performance with cutting edges) pushes everyone to the brink. Lyman (Ronn Johnstone, giving the impression this role was written for him) struggles to avoid the growing conflict, but secrets have their own inevitable weight. Trip (Jeremy Tuterow, delivering a lighter counterpoint) also wants to avoid drama, and doesn’t recognize the apparent monsters in Brooke’s book as their parents. Meanwhile, Silda (Miki Mathioudakis, excellent as usual) gives full reign to her bitterness in entertaining fashion.

To discover these fascinating secrets and lies, take the Clay Terrace exit to visit “Other Desert Cities,” through Feb. 11. Call 317-815-9687 or visit carmelplayers.org.

BCP presents serious drama

By John Lyle Belden

Wendy remembers a video rental place (remember those?) where the clerks kept putting the 1987 Streisand movie “Nuts” on the comedy shelves, and it definitely did not belong there.

While the courtroom drama, the original stage version of which is at Buck Creek Players, does have its moments of legal wit, and a defendant who deflects with “inappropriate humor,” this play is dead serious.

In a courtroom on the grounds of New York’s Bellevue Hospital in the winter of 1979, a hearing will determine if Claudia (played by Jenni White) is competent to stand trial for manslaughter. Her mother and stepfather (Miki Mathioudakis and Tim Latimer) are naturally concerned. Judge Murdoch (Ed Mobley) and prosecutor MacMillan (Dave Hoffman) are prepared for a fairly routine proceeding, with Dr. Roesnthal (Graham Brinklow) declaring the defendant unfit, and the state signing off on it. Officer Harry (Tracy Jones) is just biding time until the next smoke break.

But Claudia doesn’t believe she is “nuts,” and works with attorney Lewinsky (Michael Swinford), whose apparently disorganized manner makes him look out of his depth – until he starts asking some surprisingly probing questions.

White masterfully portrays the easily underestimated Claudia, as she plays into her opponents’ assumptions until the moment she can turn the tables. Still, she’s hardly in control. Her parents represent past pain that she never reconciled, and her stepfather being put on the stand rips those wounds back open.

Mathioudakis and Latimer tackle difficult roles professionally, she a chameleon whose colors shift from cool to hot as events unfold, he the type of person you at first mistrust because he’s rich, but then find he’s far worse than anyone suspects.

Hoffman plays it competent but stiff, while Swinford as the legal wild card is like a lithe, crafty fox. Mobley is great at crusty characters, and is in charge here. Brinklow is a study in confident arrogance. Jones is subtly reassuring, an unlikely friend. Completing the cast, Adrienne Reiswerg ably plays the court recorder, who, at the play’s close, gets in the last word.

The portrayal of mental healthcare in the late 70s seems so long ago, it’s easy to forget that only a few decades have passed, and much of the stigma – of mental illness, of sex work, and of women’s issues – still remains. And it’s further shocking how the nature of the childhood abuse Claudia suffered becomes almost a footnote in this case. There would be more attention paid today, but, honestly, how much?

Yes, “Nuts” is not a comedy, but it’s kinda funny how its issues are still resonant today.

One weekend of performances remain, Friday through Sunday, Oct. 6-8, at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeast Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.

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: Locally-sourced ‘Toyland’

By John Lyle Belden

The Footlite Musicals production of “Babes in Toyland” is both old and fresh, as the classic songs by Victor Herbert a century ago are set in a new book by the show’s director Bob Harbin (of Bibdirex fame) and comic megatalent Claire Wilcher (who, unfortunately, isn’t in the show). Harbin notes in the program that the original script is public domain, allowing him to put his and Claire’s own spin on the play.

The first act is practically a play in itself, set mostly in Mother Gooseland. Jack and Jill (Thomas Whitcomb and Breanna Jaffe) have taken a tumble, and Bo Peep (Samantha Shelton) has lost her sheep, but the biggest drama is that Mary Contrary (Claire Cassidy) wants to marry Tom Piper (Jonathan Krouse), but wicked landlord Barnaby (Jeff Fuller) demands to wed her instead. Neither Mary’s mother (Susan Smith) nor Mother Goose herself (Miki Mathioudakis) like the deal, but what hope is there for a happy ending – especially when Tom disappears? Fortunately some Gypsies (“We are Gypsies!” is a running gag) come in to help save the day.

Barnaby suffers a setback, but is not finished. The plot takes our characters in the second act to Toyland, home of a toymaker (Dan Flahive) who has given up on his craft. Time to work up another dramatic showdown towards a happy ending.

This show is very much geared towards the children and kids-at-heart, tykes who don’t mind if the beak of Mother Goose’s Gander (voiced by Curtis Peters) gets a little out of synch or if some of the joke lines fall flat. Another giggle-worthy moment or song-and-dance spectacle from this large all-ages cast is coming right up. Kudos to Fuller for playing his “boo-hiss” villain for all it’s worth. And best scene-stealer goes to Keilyn Bryant as Little BB (as in “Boy Blue”). Harbin does a great job wrangling all of the various elements that go into this show, providing an experience that feels like a holiday tradition, yet is a good alternative to the other traditional holiday shows around town you saw last year (and the year before, and the year before…).

“Toyland,” at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy, closes on Dec. 13, so get your reservation now at 317-923-6630 or www.footlite.org.