Full ‘Hamlet’ enriches familiar story

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

By Wendy Carson

By now we all know the story of Hamlet. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays and you’ve likely seen more than one version of it. However, Doug Powers and the Carmel Theatre Company have chosen to give us a different take by giving us an almost entirely unabridged look at the play.

Before you balk at the 3-plus hour running length (with intermission), note that with these rarely acted scenes returned to the story, it just deepens the richness of the characters. It also brings the secondary plot forward (remember Norway?) bringing more closure and purpose to many of the characters.

Honestly, I had forgotten many of the scenes and speeches performed and was touched by the true beauty of not only their narrative but the language itself.

Also, the starkness of the stage and minimalist set pieces help remind you that this show is about listening to and understanding the characters. In order to fulfill this task, one must have great actors and Powers has outdone himself in procuring them.

Brian G. Hartz sizzles as Hamlet, pulling forth all of the rage and deviousness that the character embodies. Miranda Nehrig turns Ophelia into a young woman who’s confusion and frustrations over Hamlet’s behavior help lead her to her desperate end. Both have skill in communicating beyond saying the lines, especially Nehrig’s talent for adding volumes with a single facial expression.

Eric Bryant as Claudius and Jean Arnold as Gertrude present the quintessential parents who are bewildered as to why their son has so quickly changed his demeanor. Their recent nuptials so soon after the previous King’s untimely death never cross their mind as a possible reason.

While most of the Bard Fest offerings have cast women in several men’s roles, Powers uses his casting choices to their maximum effect. Jo Bennett plays Horatio as a dear friend but in later scenes there seems to be romantic tension, which they pull off with great aplomb.

However, the best example of this is with the character of Guildenstern, played by Gorgi Parks Fulper. Instructed to play upon her history with Hamlet to obtain information, she is asked to use her feminine wiles. Meanwhile, Benjamin Mathis plays Rosencrantz as the perfect second banana who seems to always be left out of the whole scheme.

Alan Cloe is perfect as wise but tragic Polonius. Noah Winston is a fiery force as his son, Laertes.

Casting is also clever in its players with two or more roles: Fulper and Mathis also play palace guards in the opening scene. Janice Hibbard is the messenger to Norway, and later is that country’s warrior princess Fortinbras. The ghost of murdered King Hamlet (the title character’s dad) is portrayed by Tony Armstrong, who also plays an identical character in the play-within-the-play that Hamlet (the younger) sets up to watch his stepfather’s reaction; later Armstrong is the gravedigger who unearths Yorick’s skull.

In addition, kudos to Rachel Snyder and Kyrsten Lyster as members of the traveling troupe of Players.

There is some intense swordplay in this production, so credit is due to Bryant as fight choreographer.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 Saturday (with talkback following) and 1 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 25-27) at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Footlite presents who-will-do-it murder mystery musical

By John Lyle Belden

One thing is clear from the beginning of “Murder Ballad,” someone is going to die.

Playing at Footlite Musicals, this intense no-intermission rock opera presents four characters: our Narrator (Miranda Nehrig), who guides the fateful story’s journey while eventually becoming a character in her own right; Tom (Dave Pelsue), a proud bartender with dreams but little to show for them; Sara (Bridgette Michelle Ludlow), a frustrated poet fiercely in love with Tom, but feeling them drifting apart; and Michael (Daniel Draves), a writer who gives up his verse to make a perfect life for Sara.

After a coy courtship, Michael and Sara marry, have a daughter, make a home – but eventually, feeling restless again, Sara calls Tom at his new, successful bar. Old feelings awaken; this will not end well.

Pelsue, a veteran of shows such as “Rock of Ages” and “Tooth of Crime,” is totally in his element. Nehrig combines singing chops with exceptional acting – her ability to effectively speak volumes with a simple facial expression suits the Narrator role well. Ludlow makes a wonderful, powerful Indy theatre debut. And Draves works well the full range of emotions – his tenderness in apt contrast to his eventual rage.

Audience seating is on the Footlite stage, with actors sometimes moving among the cabaret tables for a more immersive experience. There is also a great on-stage band, with Eddie McLaughlin, Kris Manier, Will Scharfenberger and music director Ainsley Paton.

At the core, this is a story of love, betrayal and consequences, things we can all relate to. The principal mystery – who is killed, at whose hands – is revealed at the end. But then, we get what may be the musical’s best song in the Finale: a commentary on how we in the audience so enjoy murder as entertainment (so long as it’s not us getting hurt).

So, maybe we all got a little blood on our hands. Still, it’s one hell of a show.

“Murder Ballad” has one more weekend of shows, Thursday through Sunday (Jan. 17-20) at 1847 N. Alabama St.; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Harry’s ‘Monsters’ haunting Irvington

By John Lyle Belden

The movie “Halloween” is in theaters, the Dodgers are in the World Series, and there are concerns about the impact of personal video on films and television.

Yes, it’s 1978 in Los Angeles, and the magazine Popular Monsters is about to put out what may be its last issue — a tribute to horror B-movie star Ephraim Knight. Publisher Elsa Creighton is honestly no fan of scary movies — or Knight — but she works to honor her dying father, the magazine’s owner. On the other hand, staff writer Greg is a superfan of all the bumps in the night, a passion he shares with girlfriend Shawna, who, through her family, is no stranger to the ways of Hollywood.

This sets the scene for “Popular Monsters,” the fully-staged premiere of a comedy-drama script by Lou Harry, produced by another Indy playwright, Casey Ross and her Catalyst Repertory company, at the Irvington Lodge, directed by Zachariah Stonerock.

Jamie McNulty is super suave as Knight, the man who played a beast on the silver screen, whose urbane patter disguises the beast he was when the cameras weren’t rolling. Tom Weingartner as Greg flies in the other direction: manic, uncertain and painfully naive. Alexandria Miles as Shawna faces the world with razor-sharp wit and BS-detector turned to 11. And Miranda Nehrig musters her talent for complex characters by making Elsa bitchy, yet likable; and by lending humor to the scenes when she is extremely drunk without devolving into slapstick.

These bold performances with gentle humor help illuminate the play’s examination of these different characters. Appropriate to a story set in Hollywood, there are themes of what is real and what isn’t — is something a lie, or just “acting”? — the stories we tell and the truths we avoid. As Knight states, “There is always a story.”

The setting of a cultural turning point, with references to old black-and-white monster movies alongside the dawn of the slasher films and the phenomenon of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, fits so neatly, especially with Michael Myers chasing Jamie Lee Curtis in theaters again. But this is also a clever vehicle for Harry, through Stonerock’s vision, to show the ever-present “monsters” within us all.

Remaining performances are Nov. 1-3 at the historic Irvington Lodge (No. 666 — really!), 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. Info at www.facebook.com/catalystrepertory.

Old theater tradition done afresh under Indy’s sky

By John Lyle Belden

Something interesting is happening on Indy’s westside. A commedia dell’arte troupe, wandering from the Renaissance to modern day, has found its truck broken down on the campus of Marian University. So, in order to raise the funds to continue their journey home, A Company of Wayward Saints will perform for us – after all, a rich Duke may be in the audience!

In this instance, life is imitating art, as local actor Adam Tran and friends have been conducting a GoFundMe online campaign (still ongoing) to finance this production of “A Company of Wayward Saints,” the 1963 play by George Herman.

Tran leads the troupe as Harlequin. The others also play character archetypes: the boastful Capitano (Davey Pelsue), wisecracking know-it-all Dottore (Ronn Johnston), the unfortunate Pantalone (Zach Stonerock), misunderstood youth Scapino (Josh Maldonado), the beautiful Columbine (Kelsey Leigh Miller), grasping Ruffiana (Miranda Nehrig), and the Lovers, Isabella (Nina DeWitt) and Aurelia (Andrea Heiden).

To perform what they call commedia la improvviso, they need a prompt from the audience. Harlequin reveals the mysterious Duke has asked for “The History of Man.” A tall order. “I will play God,” the Captain bellows, and the play is on. But as members of the company lament, “As actors, temperament is our original sin,” and dissension builds in the ranks.

This performance is a wonderfully unique experience, though you should bring lawn chairs to sit by the busted flatbed truck that is the stage. The actors give their all for the art, as though they don’t worry about getting paid (or is this like hustling for tips?). Johnston can land a cheesy punchline in the first act, and bring surprising tenderness to an unexpectedly dramatic scene with the Lovers in the second. Maldonado displays tumbling skill along with his acting chops, and shares a charming and touching scene with Nehrig. Miller nicely turns the Odysseus legend on its ear, and has a fun look at love and marriage with Stonerock. Tran shows his depth with the final scene – a scene of finality – opposite Pelsue.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday, May 18-20, by the Amphitheater at Marian University, 3200 Cold Spring Road. Get info at Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/acompanyofwaywardsaintsindy/.

Take a spin with Buck Creek Players

By John Lyle Belden

Times change in every era. Recent years have washed away most of the video stores and game arcades of the 1980s, and that decade, in turn, tore down some old diversions to make room for the new. That’s where we find “The Rink,” the musical running through Feb. 11 at Buck Creek Players.

On a run-down seaside boardwalk, Antonelli’s Roller Rink – once bustling but now in decay, its pipe organ long silent – is closed and due for demolition. The building contains the residence of owner (and “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer”) Anna Antonelli. But as she moves the last of her possessions out, in comes her daughter, Angel, who had left home over a decade before in order to “find herself.” The reunion becomes tense as Angel discovers not only is her childhood home being destroyed, but also her mother forged her signature to sell it. Is this relationship, like the building, now damaged beyond repair?

Typically, I’d mention the creators of the musical up front; but though they personally loved it, it is not the best work by Broadway legends John Kander and Fred Ebb. And fortunately, book-writer Terrance McNally would go on to write a number of legendary Tony-winning musicals and plays. But in this, overall, the script is weak — the songs ranging from mildly catchy to cringe-worthy.

Fortunately, BCP and director D. Scott Robinson elevate the material though brilliant casting. Real-life mother and daughter Georgeanna Tiepen (Anna) and Miranda Nehrig (Angel) also happen to be wildly talented actors and singers. Their natural bond shows through, bringing out the heart of the show. A chorus of men play the crew impatiently waiting to tear the place down, as well as, in flashback, the men in the women’s lives. This includes great performances by Jake McDuffy as Dino, Angel’s father, and Michael R. Mills as Dino’s father, the original owner of the rink.

Kudos to set designer Aaron B. Bailey for making the stage an authentic-looking piece of the skating rink’s floor – it even gets some use in a fun interlude when the wrecking crew find some skates.

This show does have its merits, and especially if you empathize with the plight of mothers and prodigal daughters, or have your own cherished boardwalk or rollerskating memories, you’ll find yourself liking your time at “The Rink.”

Also, to complete the atmosphere, BCP has started selling popcorn before the show, which you can partake of in the theatre.

Playhouse is at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

Paige Scott and EclecticPond boldly bringing Bronte to today’s audience

By John Lyle Belden

EclecticPond Theatre Company brushes off a dusty classic with “J. Eyre,” bringing new life to Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel “Jane Eyre” as a contemporary musical.

The style is modern, but the English countryside setting of this gothic romance remains. The actors’ clothes evoke the period rather than copy it. In fact, the style of this production – through July 30 at Grove Haus near Indy’s Fountain Square – focuses primarily on the story of relationships and the people swept up in them.

The seven actors never leave the stage, with all providing narration, singularly or in harmony, throughout. Two of them each portray a single role, Devan Mathias as Jane and Tim Hunt as Edward Rochester, while the others – Miranda Nehrig, Mary Margaret Montgomery, Abby Gilster, Chelsea Leis and Carrie Neal – chameleon from one supporting character to another.

Written and directed by Paige Scott, the musical’s story largely follows the book: Orphan Jane endures a wretched childhood, including abuse at the hands of her aunt and cousin, and the death of her only school friend (Montgomery) in a typhus outbreak. She then takes a job as governess for a girl in the care of crude, spoiled playboy Rochester. But Jane falls in love with him – realizing her feelings as he prepares to marry gold-digger Blanche (Nehrig) – and when it looks like she will finally find happiness, she finds out his terrible secret. (In case you didn’t read or don’t remember the novel from your literature classes, I’ll leave it there.)

The sung narrative interludes between scenes aid the flow of the story without interrupting it, and relieves one of the need to have read it beforehand to understand its events. Scott’s songs feel like they’ve always been a part of this classic, rather than freshly written. Her captivating adaptation of the novel suggests the script for an autumn Oscar-bait movie. Add in excellent performances by the cast and keyboard accompanist Jacob Stensberg, and this is the kind of show that, if presented Off-Broadway, would soon find itself under the big lights.

You can find “J. Eyre” at 1001 Hosbrook Street; and tickets and info at eclecticpond.org.

BCP’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ here to steal your heart

By John Lyle Belden

Is it a “spoiler” if you already know the ending?

The musical “Bonnie & Clyde” – through June 25 at Buck Creek Players – opens with our titular characters dying from a rain of bullets on a Louisiana road in 1934. But this historical fact is not what is important in this show by Ivan Menchell and Don Black with music by Frank Wildhorn of “Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical.” We aren’t given the gore of their story; this play is an exploration of what made a young man and woman from Texas into the Romeo and Juliet of Depression-era crime.

Bonnie and Clyde musical publicity shot
Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in the musical “Bonnie & Clyde” presented by Buck Creek Players.

After the opening tableau, we turn back to see a boy – young Clyde Barrow (Jordan Anness), a child of the West Dallas slums, become a career criminal at 12 and aspire to outshine the Roaring Twenties’ outlaws. We also meet a girl – young Bonnie Parker (Lauren Sciaudone), whose family’s hard times landed her and her mother in West Dallas, but she still plans to make it big one day in Hollywood.

These kids grow to be adults (Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller) in a world of dust and hard times – at one point our couple robs a bankrupt bank. Clyde is the only one who takes Bonnie’s dreams seriously, so they fall in love so deeply that even his stays in jail can’t keep them apart. As she joins him on his “jobs,” Bonnie gives up on the movies and aspires to fame in the pages of true-crime magazines and having her poetry published.

Meanwhile, Clyde’s brother, Buck (Levi Hoffman), gets in on the action with even his upstanding wife Blanche (Miranda Nehrig) drawn into the Barrow Gang. On the other side of the law, Deputy Ted Hinton (Jonathan Krouse), who had long been in love with Bonnie, joins in pursuit of the outlaws with Sheriff Smoot Schmid (James Hildreth) under the lead of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kurt F. Clemenz).

The story presented neither demonizes nor glorifies the people involved, or their actions, but puts them in the context of their times and the contradictions that surrounded them – including the murderous thieves staying true to their families, going to meet them at the risk of their own safety. Some license is taken with the story, but it does stay surprisingly true to recorded events. A small video screen above the stage shows photos from the era, including mugshots, to underscore the truth of these scenes.

While rakishly handsome Massingale and charming beauty Miller excellently hold the center of the show in both voice and acting (and some resemblance to their real-life counterparts), supporting roles also shine. Nehrig’s Blanche telling Buck “You’re Going Back to Jail” is a wonderful highlight and an excellent example of the musical’s use of humor to balance the drama. Krouse gives us a heartbreaking glimpse of what Bonnie could have had in steadfast Ted. Molly Kraus is also noteworthy as Bonnie’s mother, Emma.

Director D. Scott Robinson’s passion for the show (which had a brief run on Broadway) is evident in the finished product.

Being a volunteer non-profit, BCP could “afford” to have the large enthusiastic cast and crew necessary to this musical, all “pros” in their own way. The effective yet elegantly simple stage set includes an exceptional replica of the front end of Clyde’s V-8 Ford, hand-built by set designer Aaron B. Bailey.

But the car’s fenders are clean and free of bullet holes. This is the story before that moment; a story of love and hard decisions in difficult times, the slow and steady progress of justice, and of running from the inevitable when the best you can hope for is to reach the end of the road together.

Find Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeast Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or see www.buckcreekplayers.com.

Review: ‘Lobby Channel’ something to see

CRP Lobby Channel

By John Lyle Belden

Casey Ross Productions’ latest show is a perfect conversation starter for this age in which humanity has never been so connected, yet individuals still find themselves so lonely.

In “Lobby Channel,” a new musical written and directed by Ross’s friend (and local actress) Paige Scott, based on a story once told on NPR’s “This American Life,” a pair of morning radio jocks are trading insults as usual when one tells of something extraordinary – his home VCR managed to pull from the cable system a closed-circuit feed from an unfamiliar building somewhere in the city.

With only one view and no sound, Ted (Bradford Reilly) watches an empty hallway for hours, waiting for the brief appearances of a beautiful woman in a pillbox hat. She approaches, alone, often dropping her keys as she reaches her door, and hours later she departs for destinations unknown.

As the story unfolds, the woman in the black dress and hat (Miranda Nehrig) appears, ghost-like, expressing Ted’s wonder at who she could be. His partner Brian (Evan Wallace), unsure what to think of his story, throws another barb at Ted, saying the woman must be a stripper. In response, her next song takes a seductive turn, almost too much for Ted to bear.

Is Ted a sort of stalker? Is this the beginning of an unconventional love story? The play concludes in a logical manner, but still leaves those questions hanging for us to wonder – as good theatre should.

Reilly ably expresses the frustration of someone trapped in an incomplete puzzle, unsure of what to do with the pieces he has been given. Wallace easily portrays the friend who gives you a hard time, but still has your back. And Nehrig’s beauty and voice are a perfect fit for our mystery woman. Scott’s haunting music and lyrics suit the mood perfectly, providing the right tension to hold this simple-yet-complex story together.

It’s one act, clocking in at just under an hour, yet this show packs a lot into its frame. It echoes both a time not long ago when personal privacy was a sacred thing and today with social media like open books that we all show each other. We all get to know perfect strangers, imperfectly. Do you really understand this person, or are you only watching their “Lobby Channel”?

The musical’s performances are Friday through Sunday, through May 22, at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook Ave. near Indy’s Fountain Square. See uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions/ or Casey Ross Productions on Facebook for info and tickets.

Review: Adults from adult films, adulting

By John Lyle Belden

Let’s clear up one thing right away: There is no sex, simulated or otherwise, in the play “Porno Stars at Home,” on the second stage at Theatre on the Square through April 23. Nor is there nudity (which seems odd, considering TOTS’s brave history). Believe it or not, there is more sex in the shows which both precede and follow it on the theatre’s schedule.

What you get, in Leonard Melfi’s famous 1970s drama, are five people portraying five real, fragile women and men who happen to have jobs engaging in sex acts for adult films.

“My birthday party will not be a disaster,” declares Georgia Lloyd Bernhardt (played by Lisa Marie Smith) as guests start to arrive at her tidy New York apartment. She desperately wants and needs to believe that statement is true, as she faces the stress of turning 35 in an industry that demands youth, as well as a secret she will eventually reveal to her friends. Her quest for a clean space away from her “work” is reflected in her spartan furnishings and desire that all keep even their language clean (a hopeless quest).

First to arrive is her peer, Barry Olivier (Todd Kenworthy). Later we meet hyper Norma Jean Brando (Frankie Bolda), hunky Montgomery McQueen (Jay Hemphill) and beautiful Uta Bergman-Hayes (Miranda Nehrig).

Norma Jean, a confessed nymphomaniac, has a surprise of her own: The last man she casually had sex with is allegedly a playwright and would not only write a part for her, but a play for all five of this group, telling about their lives. (Who knew “going meta” was a thing in the ’70s?) The anticipation of a visit by this man, and the hope it gives to these actors longing for “legitimate” roles, is a touchstone for the drama that follows.

As one might guess, this quintet aren’t happy with a life of boinking on film. Montgomery confesses he hates working in all-male films, despite his ample “talent” tenting his slacks. Meanwhile, Uta says she is tired of sex in all forms and wishes to find a more real and less physical form of intimacy – her attitude is reflected in her wardrobe, sharply dressed in a pantsuit that covers her to her neck and wrists, topped off on her entry with a concealing hat. Barry apparently has compartmentalized his feelings for women from the sex of his job, but seems conflicted on which applies in his relationship with Georgia, one of his more popular co-stars.

I won’t spoil much by saying that Georgia’s little party is indeed a “disaster” – a beautiful, entertaining wreck that tests and humanizes these characters who found themselves in lives of equal parts fame and shame. Considering that thousands of men and women are involved in the adult film industry to this day (a much bigger, wilder world thanks to the internet), this look at the “scene” 40 years ago has striking relevance – only the rotary phone (and no individual mobiles) betrays the era, since retro décor and disco fashion could become in vogue at any time. Kudos to this quintet, and director Bill Wilkison, for bringing these hurting souls to life – and I can’t help but hope those alter egos made it away from their “day job” to answer an audition notice by an enigmatic off-Broadway playwright by the name of Melfi…

Needless to say, “Porno Stars at Home” is for mature audiences. Find TOTS at 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis. Call 317-685-8687 or visit0 tots.org.

(Review also published at The Word.)