ALT: Intense drama includes talkback after every show

By John Lyle Belden

American Lives Theatre, the latest new company to the Indianapolis stage scene, makes a bold and provocative debut with its production of Pulitzer finalist “Gloria” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

In the offices of a New York-based magazine, aspiring writers, stuck as assistants to faceless editors, snipe at each other as they lament their lack of opportunity, discuss their exit strategies, and seek to take advantage of the breaking story of a celebrity death. Dean (Joe Barsanti) is facing his 30th birthday with the vain hope that his memoir on his struggles in a dying industry will make all this worth it. Ali (Morgan Morton) is very go-along-get-along, which infuriates super-ambitious Kendra (Kim Egan). It’s the last day for intern Miles (Joshua Short), who is questioning his career path, now that he has seen the beast from the inside. The general commotion in this room infuriates Lorin (Tom Weingartner), trying to keep up with the demands of being chief fact-checker down the hall. Meanwhile, Gloria (Bridget Haight) — generally quiet and kinda weird, but a constant presence for the past 15 years — keeps dropping by, appearing anxious. Could this have something to do with the housewarming she hosted the night before, to which only Dean showed up?

This is about all I dare reveal of the plot. Director (and ALT founder) Chris Saunders notes that the content of this play includes a “trigger warning” due to a very specific trauma at the heart of the story. But I won’t spill, as the shock is an essential part of the drama. 

Fortunately, there is plenty of satirical and workplace humor, even as the characters become haunted by their circumstances. Haight also plays Nan, an editor with her own perspective that receives attention. Most of the cast also have additional roles, notably Short as a rather in-charge Starbucks barista. All have talents well up to their task.

“Gloria” is not so much about what happens, but rather how we deal with it. As each person comes to terms with their role and reactions, it becomes a question, as Saunders asks in the post-show discussion, “who owns the rights to trauma?”

Yes, there’s a talk-back — after every performance. Saunders hosts, and the actors may also get involved. Given what happens in the play, this can be a very important part of the overall experience.

Performances are Friday, Saturday (Jan. 17-18) and the next Friday through Sunday (Jan. 24-26) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair. Get info and tickets at americanlivestheatre.org or indyfringe.org.

Bard Fest: Trauma has woman caught in ‘Lear’s Shadow’

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

By John Lyle Belden

For many of the people I know, theatre is life. Sometimes it feels like the two blend together, and in “Lear’s Shadow,” by Brian Elerding, the words of a William Shakespeare drama can help one to deal with a real-world truth.

Jackie (Nan Macy) arrives at her company’s rehearsal room to find it empty and the wrong scripts on the table. She has unexplained bruises and a sore neck, but her main concern is that no one is there to start working on Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” 

Then, company member Stephen (Tom Weingartner) arrives, visibly worried. He calls Rachel (Morgan Morton), who is on her way, but in the meantime he needs to keep Jackie occupied, working through her frequent mental re-sets until she is ready to understand…

For much of the hour of this First Folio production in the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre, Jackie and Stephen explore the idea of following just the plot of the King in “Lear,” apart from other intrigues, exploring his relationships and growing madness. Thus many passages from the play are quoted and enacted, leading up to Act IV, Scene 7. Jackie, who has the script memorized, takes the title role, which she instructs must be played starting less-mad, giving his character somewhere to go, “to see someone gaining strength as they lose everything.”

Macy is incredible, both as Jackie and as Jackie-as-Lear, as we come to learn the parallels between the two — picking favorites, pushing away a loved one, psychological trauma, and the need to rage against something that can’t be controlled.

Weingartner shows deft command of the stage as well, and Morton acquits herself well in her scene. 

Directed by Glenn Dobbs, this drama is a worthy addition to the festival, a good “Shakespeare-adjacent” play that helps relate the old texts to today’s world as well or better than just putting players in modern suits (though we do enjoy those, too, theatre friends!). 

Remaining performances are Oct. 24-27: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (with talkback after Friday’s show) and 2 p.m. Sunday. 

IndyFringe: Vinny the Pooh

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

While waiting for the show to begin, you are serenaded by lounge singer Richard Cheese — and if you know who that is, then you have a good idea of what you are in for with this show.

Apparently, after Christa MaBobbin left the 50 Hectare Forest to marry Toad and take a wild ride in neighboring Frogswallow, things changed. Now these beloved characters have been forced into a life of crime in order to remain a “family.”

Steve Kruze gives Vinny the hopefulness and love of honey that you might remember but he also brings a little street-smarts to the role as well. Kelsey VanVoorst as Sniglet gives us a new interpretation of the original’s worried indecisiveness.

Clay Mabbitt is hilarious as Eyesore, with his gloomy outlook and eyepatch(es). Joshua C. Ramsey channels all of the pompousness of Jowl, speaking in Latin throughout.

Carrie Ann Schlatter’s portrayal of Franga (and puppet child Shmoo) brings all of the fierceness that wild kangaroos are known for.

Rounding out the “Family” is John Kern as Stagger. His energy levels are amazing as he bounds through each scene bringing out the self-centered side of his character.

Morgan Morton, as MaBobbin, deftly maneuvers her character from innocent victim to devious plotter without batting an eyelash.

So come out and see how the corruption and intrigue work out. Just know that in this story, while there are snacks, there will also be blood.

An Approxima Productions joint, remaining performances are Friday and Saturday (Aug. 23-24) at the IndyFringe theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

An American classic comes to life on Civic stage

By John Lyle Belden

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” the celebrated novel by Harper Lee, is likely a book you are familiar with, perhaps from reading it in school, or by seeing the Gregory Peck film which closely followed Lee’s story.

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents a live production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the play adapted by Christopher Sergel, which is performed annually in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown on which the novel’s setting is based. Unlike that production, the local staging doesn’t pick a trial jury from the audience – but attorney Atticus Finch still speaks directly to us.

For the unfamiliar, the story, set in Mayscomb, Ala., in the mid-1930s, is told by Finch’s young daughter, Jean Louise, known as Scout. The play gives us a grown-up Jean Louise (Michelle Wafford), who emerges from the audience to narrate for her younger self (Bridget Bingham), who is trying to make sense of all the things happening around her.

Scout, her brother Jem (Dalyn Stewart) and friend Dill (Ben Boyce) are occupied with what the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley might look like. The only clues are items left in a tree in his yard. But a bigger distraction comes when Atticus (Steve Kruze) is appointed by Judge Taylor (Tom Smith) to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Antoine Demmings), who has been accused of beating and “having his way” with teenager Myella Ewell (Morgan Morton) by her father, town drunk Bob Ewell (Joe Steiner). The children endure taunts for their father defending a black man, but Atticus counsels them to endure and be confident he is doing the right thing. Scout wonders if she can feel pride in her father at all, until an incident with a mad dog reveals there’s more to the man than she ever suspected. Likewise, Jem wonders why his punishment for his vandalism of bitter, hateful neighbor Mrs. Dubose’s (Holly Stults) garden is to deliver kindness, until he comes to understand the whole situation.

The Robinson trial is a big spectacle, so the children sneak in to see it for themselves (thus allowing us to witness it), finding only room to sit in the “Colored” section with the Rev. Sykes (Brad Thompson). They marvel at how Atticus takes advantage of flaws in the testimony, and the kids are sure this will come out in their (and Robinson’s) favor. What does happen gives life lessons the children will never forget. And the events that follow will result in men killed, Jem injured, and Scout becoming a whole lot wiser.

Other notable characters include Sheriff Heck Tate (Clay Mabbit); the Finches’ cook, Calpurnia (Chandra Lynch); and an appearance by Boo Radley (Colby Rison) himself.

Under the direction of Emily Rogge Tzucker, this important story rises from the page to remind us of how horrible, yet accepted, hatred and injustice can be – then, and even more than 80 years later. Of course, that includes the bigoted context of the South in the 20th century, in which no person would even think of saying “African American” and “black” was mostly just a color you painted. So, be warned, the word “nigger” is used numerous times, by characters with either malice or apathy towards its dehumanizing effects. And if my writing the word out in the previous sentence bothers you too much, you should steel yourself before seeing this play – and go anyway.

Scout’s purpose in this story is to learn to see the world through others’ eyes – a man who would rather do what’s right than what’s popular, a person in unspeakable pain, a person judged purely by his skin tone, even a person who just can’t deal with other people – and thus teach us to do the same. Experience it for yourself at the Tarkington theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Feb. 23. Information and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

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.

Rumor has it: Civic makes ‘Sense’

By John Lyle Belden

If you wonder at the possible appeal of a play based on a Jane Austen novel, consider the number of people, from all backgrounds, now hooked on Downton Abbey. And it’s not just the accents, the fine clothes, or even the tea – but a good well-told story that sustains such period tales’ popularity. And we all feel for those living mired in an environment of strict rules of conduct and etiquette.

“Sense and Sensibility,” a light drama based on Austen’s 1811 novel, at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Feb. 17, also emphasizes a public scourge with which we can all identify: The constant gossip and rumors, frequently spoken to set up and frame the scenes, sound all too familiar in our Twitter and TMZ world.

Weathering this social storm are the Dashwood family. The widow Mrs. Dashwood (Carrie Neal) and her daughters – sensible Elinor (Emily Bohn), romantic Marianne (Morgan Morton) and young Margaret (Elisabeth Giffen Speckman) – are forced to live on their own in a humble cottage, as their former estate had gone to a son from Mr. Dashwood’s prior marriage (women weren’t allowed to inherit). Despite being dropped to the lower rungs of the almost caste-like society of 1790s England, Elinor and especially Marianne receive the attentions of very promising single men, including shy Robert Ferrars (Joshua Ramsey), rakish John Willoughby (Justin Klein) and steady Colonel Brandon (Bradford Reilly).

In addition to these men, the cast also includes scene-stealer extraordinaire Matt Anderson as the Dashwoods’ cousin Sir John, whose generosity helps the women stay on their feet. In exchange, he – and nearly anyone else around – only want the latest juicy news from around the countryside.

This recent adaptation of Austen’s story by Kate Hamill, directed for the Civic by John Michael Goodson, is marked by its reliance on swirling rumor to drive the plot, as well as its minimalist staging. Little more than chairs and a few props are used, putting the focus squarely on the actors. Aside from Bohn and Morton, whose characters are the focal point of the book and play, all other cast members play multiple roles, and even the occasional dog or horse. This adds to the show’s sense of humor – enough to entertain, but never overreaching into farce. For instance, at one point Abby Gilster frequently enters and exits a scene as two different characters, making it an inevitable laugh line when one has to remark about the other.

High marks to all the cast, with clear characterizations despite a fairly high-energy pace (no dreary corset drama, this!). And as a woman’s novel adapted by another woman, it’s easy to see the story as a celebration of women working to live as much as possible on their own terms.

A review of the original New York production of this version calls it “Jane Austen for those who don’t usually like Jane Austen,” but that sells the source material short. This “Sense and Sensibility” looks through the old story through a more contemporary lens, while leaving Miss Austen’s intentions intact. It only makes “sense” that you should check this out.

Performances are on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or visit www.civictheatre.org, or thecenterpresents.org for tickets.