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.

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Get on board ‘Priscilla’ with Footlite Musicals

By John Lyle Belden

To my gay friends reading this, I have just two words to say about “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical” (based on the film “The Adventures of Priscilla…”), at Footlite Musicals through May 20:

FABULOUS! GO!

Need more details? OK. This spectacle is the journey of three Sydney, Australia, drag queens: Tick a/k/a Mitzi (Michael Howard), who wants to connect with the son he barely knows; Bernadette (John Phillips), a widow and aging diva needing to find her next chapter; and Adam a/k/a Felicia (Chris Jones), an impetuous lass in search of fun and adventure.

Tick’s very understanding wife, Marion (Carolyn Lynch), needs an act for her casino in Alice Springs (located in the center of the Australian continent, far from coastal Sydney) and his traveling there would fulfill Tick’s promise to visit his boy, Benji (Rocco Meo). Bernadette provides the showbiz know-how, and Adam provides the transportation – a fabulous RV that is the Priscilla of the title. While the wildlife ignore our trio, the treacherous part of the journey is the human denizens as they travel through Australia’s equivalent of Kentucky (Broken Hill, Woop Woop) and West Virginia (Coober Pedy). Along the way, they do meet one helpful soul, Bob (Dan Flahive), who ends up along for the ride.

Howard presents Tick with charm, charisma and rugged good looks reminiscent of Hugh Jackman. Phillips exudes authority appropriate to a, at turns, regal and maternal personality. Jones goes from carefree to careless and back with aplomb, like the younger sibling you just want to slap sometimes, but love anyway. And Flahive is sweet in his portrayal of what was my favorite character in the film.

Also notable are Sarah Marone as Bob’s mail-order bride Cynthia, of the infamous “ping pong scene,” and Dennis Jones as Sydney diva Miss Understanding.

The story is embellished with more than 20 pop and disco hits from the 1970s and ’80s, including “It’s Raining Men,” “Go West,” “I Will Survive,” and “True Colors.” For those who can’t resist singing along, a special matinee this Saturday (May 12 at 2:30 p.m.) will let you do just that, complete with lyric sheets.

Another spectacular feature of this show is the costumes – the genuine Tony and Oscar-winning outfits sent to Indy from Broadway. The headdresses must be seen to be believed, as well as the visual effect of the big “gumby” pants.

All this, for a story with a little pain, a lot of heart, and a sense of fun as big as the Outback. Footlite is at 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

IRT puts on ‘Noises Off’

By John Lyle Belden

We know how the workplace can be the site of ridiculous interpersonal drama, so imagine how it can get when you have a group of temperamental artistic folks in the same space for hours on end – you get something like “Noises Off,” the Michael Frayn farce on stage through May 20 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

On a January day in a forgettable English town, the cast of the comedy “Nothing On” – which explores the humor inherent in multiple platters of sardines – are rehearsing less than 24 hours before the play opens, with director Lloyd Dallas (IRT mainstay Ryan Artzberger) at his wits’ end. Dotty (Hollis Resnik) struggles with where to place the sardines, while Frederick (Robert Neal) struggles with his character’s motivation. Brooke (Ashley Dillard) only seems to have room in her brain for her lines, while Garry (Jerry Richardson) and Belinda (Heidi Kettenring) scramble to be in the right spots for them to make sense. It’s hoped that aging thespian Selsdon (Bob Riley) will be sober and on time, so stage manager Tim (Will Allan) is on standby as understudy. Meanwhile, assistant stage manager Poppy (Mehry Eslaminia) jumps to Dallas’s every demand.

The eventful run-through of the first act gives us an idea of what’s supposed to happen on stage. Next, midway through the tour of “Nothing On,” we see what’s happening backstage. Nerves and relationships are frayed as Brooke threatens to walk out, Selsdon keeps finding the whiskey, and Dallas ends up in a very prickly situation. Finally, the third act brings us to the memorable final performance of the tour, during which some improvisation becomes necessary.

The genius of this play is the perfectly timed “bad” timing, everything going “wrong” in just the right way. As is the standard at IRT, this cast has it down, making slamming doors and slipping on sardines an art and moving props such as a bottle, an axe or a cactus like a ballet. Praise must also go to scenic designer Bill Clarke for the two perfectly arranged coordinated sets, as well as director David Bradley for containing the chaos for a thoroughly entertaining show.

Find the IRT at 140 W. Washington St., near Circle Centre in downtown Indianapolis. Find info and tickets at irtlive.com or call 317-635-5252.

Experience Venice through the eyes of its visitors in IRT’s ‘Appoggiatura’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre play “Appoggiatura,” by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still, is a “Venecia story:” A story of Venice, Italy.

Venice, the centuries-old artistically and architecturally rich city of gondola-filled canals, is a unique place, and it can’t help but become a character in any story set there. I understand this, because I once spent the day there; so I, too, have a Venecia story – but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

This play is also the third in Still’s loose “trilogy” involving characters related to a man named Jack, who died on 9/11. But this is not about him, except that relatives give brief mention in the way you can’t help but talk of someone you loved so dearly and lost so tragically. And it is not at all in the same style as the two previous plays: “The House That Jack Built” (premiered by IRT in 2012), a family drama set around a New England Thanksgiving table; or “Miranda” (on the IRT upperstage last year), a spy thriller set in Yemen. This play truly is, you must understand, a Venecia story.

Venice is not only rich in art, architecture and history, but also in music. The strains of violin and operatic voices are performed throughout this show, framing and accentuating scenes (yet this is not a musical) with a masqued man who might even be the spirit of Venice-born composer Vivaldi. Venice is a city of patient natives and multitudes of tourists, which our characters can’t help but bump into. It is a city of labyrinthine narrow streets between the canals, so that the directions of “go right, go left, go straight, go straight” will take you virtually anywhere, especially to the centrally-located world-famous Piazza San Marco.

In this setting, we meet Helen (Susan Pellegrino) and her grown granddaughter (and Jack’s daughter), Sylvie (Andrea San Miguel), who arrive in Venice on a rainy night with luggage missing and their rooms not ready. They are accompanied by Aunt Chuck (Tom Aulino), who is definitely not happy with the way things are turning out. But he also still feels the loss of his husband, Gordon, who had previously been Helen’s husband.

The next morning, they are greeted by their “tour-guider,” Marco (Casey Hoekstra), who reassures them that they and their luggage being lost is only part of their Venecia story, which they will eventually come to treasure. As it turns out, Marco isn’t much of a “guider,” but still a good man to have around.

As she wanders the city, Helen is reminded of her own previous Venecia story, crossing a bridge into the past and encounters with a young Helen and Gordon (San Miguel and Hoekstra) on their honeymoon. Chuck also finds echoes of the man he loved at a Venecian fountain. The blending of time and space, especially when 21st-century technology gets mixed in, would be concerning to a hard-core sci-fi fan, but this is a romantic tale – and no dangerous side effects of paradox seem to take place.

Still’s characters are charming and likeable, even the extras (performed by wandering musicians Andrew Mayer, Paul Deboy and Katrina Yaukey) such as a man (Deboy) walking and singing to his two (puppet) dogs – based on a memory from Still’s own personal Venecia story. San Miguel plays her Millennial character as impatient, searching and a bit cynical, but not whiny; a measure of how much we care for Sylvie is that we understand her perspective during a heated Skype conversation with her fiance (Yaukey) in the States. Pellegrino and Aulino touch our hearts as two people united by their longing for the same man, each taking an opposite approach: she always sunny, he ever under a cloud. Hoekstra’s Marco is eager and a bit of a hustler, but with an easily detected good heart.

As Venice is a literal maze of history and blended eras, I can forgive fantasy elements that wouldn’t work as well in other settings. And, while I know a trilogy is supposed to be just three stories, I feel that there should be a follow-up with what happens between Sylvia and her beloved in Vermont. It is refreshing to see a story with elements of same-sex love that never dwells on it; it’s just a part of normal relationships. And it is notable that in the 20-teens, references to 9/11 no longer shock, yet retain their sting. I must also note how truly funny this play is at various points, but it’s not a full-on “comedy,” just a lifelike reflection of both the comic/drama masks we all wear.

Otherwise, this is a hard show to critique, as its blend of music, drama, love, and comic moments stands alone and could only be categorized as – dare I say it again: A Venecia story.

Save the cost of airfare to Italy and head downtown to 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Performances are through March 31. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

Zach & Zack’s ‘Angry Inch’ measures up

By John Lyle Belden

Once again, internationally ignored superstar Hedwig Robinson takes the stage in Indianapolis, fronting “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The German glam goddess tells her story while shadowing former partner Johnny Gnosis, who is on another stage, reaping the benefits of scandal.

“Hedwig,” the acclaimed Off-Broadway musical, is a transcendent sensory experience when done right — and Zach (Rosing) & Zack (Neiditch) may have succeeded with this month’s production on the Epilogue Players stage.

That’s right, this punk youthquake is in the little corner theatre that typically showcases older actors. But on the other hand, given her Cold War backstory, the character of Hedwig isn’t so young anymore. The show was originally performed and set around the year 2000, so to keep the story fresh this play blurs the last 20 years into a spacetime setting of its own — not hard to reconcile for folks like me for whom the 20th century feels like yesterday, but might require some don’t-think-about-it for younger viewers.

Tim Hunt is Hedwig, with face, voice and attitude much like the show’s creator and original star, John Cameron Mitchell. Her look is made complete by exquisite costumes and headpieces by costumer Beck Jones, especially during “Wig in a Box.”

Hedwig’s present husband, Yitzhak, is portrayed perfectly by Kate Homan, from his sulking resentment and grudging fidelity to an outstanding transformation at the end.

They are backed by a solid onstage band of Jacob Stensberg, Matt Day, Steven Byroad and Andrew McAfee. They perform on a punk-aesthetic stage complete with cleverly used discarded-but-functional televisions.

As fans know, the “Angry Inch” refers to more than the band; it’s the result of the botched sex-change operation in East Berlin when young Hansel Schmidt became Hedwig. So, needless to say, there is mature content in this show (but no nudity). And as the historical context slips further into the past, and it being less unusual to see a Trans entertainer on stage, we are confronted with the other, larger, more universal theme of the play — the personal search for completion.

This world’s foundational myth (in the “Origin of Love”) is that humanity was only content when each “person” was a complete set of two individuals fused together. But in the longing for finding one’s other half, they ironically lose or give away parts of themselves. This is Hedwig’s journey — losing her “parts” to gain a man, yielding her creativity in the attempt to hold another, then denying Yitzhak his own completion for as long as her own soul is fragmented.

As the many puzzles presented come together, we all share in the completion of a beautiful experience, a feeling no one can tear down.

Performances are Thursday through Sunday (Jan. 11-14) at 1849 N. Alabama St. Click here for info and tickets.

Phoenix craftily regifts classic bits in annual Xmas show

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to North Pole University! The students and staff are all here to make sure you are up to speed and ready for the next semester. That is the framing conceit of this year’s installment of Phoenix Theatre’s A Very Phoenix Xmas, “Up to Snow Good.”

The cast members pose as different NPU characters in order to introduce the various scenes making up the show. Since this will be the final presentation in the current location, all of this year’s skits are glowing highlights from past shows.

While you may have seen all of the vignettes before, each one has been carefully reworked in a totally new way. In fact, my all-time favorite number, “The Baby,” has been transformed into an awesome puppet show and I feel that it is a far superior rendition to the original.

Also, since these shows have been going for over a decade, it is easy to forget some of them. “Les Miserabelves” is one such example. I had honestly forgotten the hilarity resulting from blending a certain Christmas classic with a French Revolutionary musical. Needless to say, it stands the test of time.

Devan Mathias’s tender take on “Hard Candy Christmas” is hauntingly beautiful especially as she slowly transforms into a her next skit’s character as she sings.

Paul Collier Hansen’s stirring portion of “Hallelujah Hallelujah” is pure sweet sadness with a tiny touch of hope.

Rob Johansen amazingly transforms from a hard-edged Private Eye in “Christmas Heat” to a sleek acrobat in “You Can Fly”.

Nathan Robbins gives a solemn turn in the sweetly insightful “A Requiem for Shermy,” with Gail Payne as another nearly-forgotten character, a scene which will leave you reassessing how you watch a certain popular Christmas classic.

These, along with Jean Arnold, Andrea Heiden and Carlos Medina Maldonado, are all such standout talents. And with such great material, under the direction of Phoenix boss Bryan Fonseca, they all work together so well without chewing the scenery or stealing scenes.

Given the Phoenix’s well-earned reputation for edgy and controversial fare, we’re happy to note that even with their tongue in cheek, there is nothing too over-the-top (though the creche catapult in the War on Christmas scene comes close).

So pull on your ugliest Christmas sweater, gather your loved ones and snuggle up at the Phoenix Theater, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy, with a spirited take on the holidays as we know them, on the main stage through Dec. 23. Get info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Bardfest: The wild woman vs. the wacky womanizer — with music

By Wendy Carson

The biggest complaint I have heard from people, regarding Shakespeare’s plays, is trouble following the plot due to the antiquated language. In her Bardfest production of “Taming of the Shrew,” Catalyst Repertory founder and play director/adapter Casey Ross has tackled this issue with the periodic inclusion of pop songs to assist the viewer in comprehending the message of the narrative. Being that the story is fairly well known, this style just makes a fun show even more enjoyable.

For those of you who don’t know the plot: Younger sister Bianca can’t marry until older sister Katherine does. Katherine has no intention to marry anyone. Their father is wealthy and offers a large dowry to whomever can take Katherine off his hands. Cash-strapped playboy Petruchio takes the challenge and not only ends up changing Katherine’s ways, but they both fall in love in the process. There’s also the sub-plot of various suitors trying to secure Bianca’s love.

The setting of this interpretation is a Vegas-style resort casino in the 1970s, with the daughters being cocktail waitresses, their father the owner, and Petruchio a traveling singer looking for a place to earn some money before his debt collectors catch up with him.

Hannah Elizabeth Boswell as the fiery Katherine (or Kate) is a sassy bundle of empowerment, while Davey Pelsue’s Petruchio boldly becomes every bit the hilariously lusty womanizer that the character suggests.

Abby Gilster’s delicate take on Bianca shows the character’s sly knowledge of her situation that is often overlooked in many productions. Bradford Reilly and Robert Webster Jr. as her two suitors (Lucentio and Hortensio), in disguise as tutors, bring a delightful comic desperation in their attempts to secure time with their desired.

Audrey Stonerock adds to the fun as the hottest “Widow” in the club, and Donovan Whitney is at his scene-stealing best as Tranio, a servant pretending to be the rich man while his master plays a humble tutor (see above). The proud – and relieved, when Kate is wed – papa is a charming Godfather-light performance by Tony Armstrong.

All in all, this is a rollickingly great production of a hilarious show. One note though, as we have mentioned previously, this show is not for all ages. Consider it PG-13 at least, though worldly kids might learn a new appreciation for Shakespeare if they see it. Also, bring a few dollars to tip your waitresses and maybe tuck into the clothes of some of the performers.

Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 27-29) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair. Find more information at www.indyfringe.org.